With speculation growing over whether the House ethics committee will take up a complaint against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), ethics Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) said his panel would have a difficult time investigating the allegations — a clear sign that Hefley is weighing whether his panel has the capability, or jurisdiction, to undertake such a probe.
While Hefley noted that the committee has made no final decision on how to handle the ethics complaint filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), he added that District Attorney Ronnie Earle of Travis County, Texas, is already looking into the activities of the DeLay-founded Texans for a Republican Majority PAC.
“Traditionally, the committee has been very cautious and deferred action if a law enforcement agency is involved,” said Hefley. “The committee would have to take that all into consideration.”
Under the ethics committee’s rule 15(f), the panel “may defer action on a complaint against a Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives when the complaint alleges conduct that the Committee has reason to believe is being reviewed by appropriate law enforcement or regulatory authorities, or when the Committee determines that it is appropriate for the conduct alleged in the complaint to be reviewed initially by law enforcement or regulatory authorities.”
Practically speaking, Hefley added, Earle’s office has “much more resources than we do. They have more investigative capability than we do.”
Hefley also wondered whether the ethics committee had the authority to review whether a Member broke state campaign finance law, the issue at the heart of the TRMPAC case.
But an official with Earle’s office gave the green light for the ethics committee to start its own TRMPAC probe.
Greg Cox, director of the public integrity unit for the Travis County District Attorney’s office, said he sees “no problem” if the ethics committee begins its own investigation.
Cox said his office is exploring state-related issues covering the reporting and use of corporate contributions by TRMPAC and other groups during Texas’ 2002 legislative races, and does not foresee any conflict if the ethics committee gets involved. Cox also said Earle has not contacted the House ethics committee or made an attempt to wave them off this case.
“I’m not that concerned with [the ethics committee] overlapping us,” said Cox. “We are looking at different things from a different perspective.”
Earle is trying to determine whether $600,000 in corporate contributions received by TRMPAC were illegally diverted to state candidates. The use of corporate and union funds is illegal in Lone Star State legislative races. Those funds were not reported to Texas authorities, although they were declared to the IRS.
Since the beginning of Earle’s probe, a Travis County grand jury has issued roughly 100 subpoenas for testimony and documents, including one for Danielle DeLay Ferro, the Majority Leader’s daughter and campaign manager. Both TRMPAC officials and DeLay deny any wrongdoing, and the Texas Republican has not been subpoenaed at this time. DeLay has retained two criminal-defense attorneys in Austin to monitor proceedings in the case.
The ethics complaint filed by Bell includes three parts. In addition to questions over TRMPAC, the complaints accuse DeLay of trading legislative favors for corporate campaign donations from Westar Energy Corp., as well as misusing his office to intervene in the Texas redistricting fight last year.
DeLay, who has hired former Rep. Ed Bethune (R-Ark.) to handle the Bell complaint, has until this week to formally respond to the Texas Democrat’s charges.
The ethics committee is expected to meet later this week, but there is virtually no chance that the panel will make a decision on whether to move forward on Bell’s complaint at that time, according to House GOP insiders.
In past ethics cases involving the Justice Department, such as the investigation of former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio), officials at Justice requested that the House ethics committee not conduct a separate probe, fearing such a move could jeopardize its prosecution. Similar concerns were raised by Justice during the investigation of former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.). The Senate Ethics Committee also held back while federal prosecutors looked into allegations against former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.).
But Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), who served as the top Democrat on the ethics committee during the Traficant case, pointed out that the ethics committee had in some instances initiated its own investigations even as a federal probe of a lawmaker was ongoing.
As an example, he cited the ethics panel’s investigation into several of the corruption charges leveled against former Rep. Jay Kim (Calif.). Kim was eventually convicted in mid-1997 on misdemeanor charges of illegally raising more than $237,000 during a campaign five years earlier.
“Sometimes the Justice Department asked us to defer,” noted Berman, who along with Hefley oversaw the committee’s historic decision to expel Traficant from the House after he was convicted for bribery, racketeering, fraud and tax evasion in 2002. “Sometimes the committee has taken on itself to look into a matter under its jurisdiction,” he said.
Cox declined to say when Earle’s investigation would be completed or if DeLay would be subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury. Earle recently received another three-month extension for the grand jury.
“I can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Cox. “We’ve made progress, but this is a complex investigation.”
Earle’s probe began in 2002 shortly after Texas Republicans won control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. After a long political brawl, Texas Republicans then pushed through a new redistricting plan that could cost as many as five House Democrats their seats in Congress this fall.
Cox would not comment on whether DeLay will be subpoenaed or what kind of information the grand jury has uncovered so far.
Highlighting the political attention the case is receiving is the renewed scrutiny being given to internal e-mails from Enron Corp., the now-bankrupt energy-trading giant, that mention DeLay’s requests for campaign donations for his Texas political operation.
In the e-mails, which were originally released last fall, Enron lobbyists said DeLay wanted some soft-money donated in 2000 and 2001 by Enron diverted to the Texas redistricting fight. While the e-mails shed no new light on TRMPAC or its activities, Democrats claim they show DeLay was raising corporate cash for TRMPAC — money that they charge eventually found its way into the campaign coffers of Republican candidates in Texas, or was spent on their behalf.
DeLay and his aides deny the charges, and said the e-mails actually prove the Majority Leader did nothing wrong.
Several public watchdog groups have also argued for the appointment of an outside counsel to investigate DeLay, although comments Hefley made to The Associated Press last week show he has little enthusiasm for such an approach at this point.