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Wertheimer Cautions Dreier, Hastert on Ethics

The government watchdog group Democracy 21 cautioned key House leaders last week not to make any significant changes to the House ethics process, including changing the way investigations are triggered, without a thorough public discussion.

In separate letters to Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer urged the Republican leadership to oppose and abandon “any efforts to undermine the House ethics enforcement process” and to commit to “providing an open and fair public process prior to any changes being made to the House ethics rules or enforcement process.”

Wertheimer’s salvo is the latest development in an ongoing dispute over the House ethics process, focusing on how a recent ethics complaint against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was generated and handled.

In October, DeLay’s outside counsel Ed Bethune complained to Dreier that the “Majority Leader’s detractors initiated this process and used the committee for partisan political purposes.” He also criticized the findings of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which admonished DeLay twice that month.

Specifically, Bethune complained that Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), who filed the original complaint against DeLay, “did not craft these allegations alone” but “received significant aid from an outside political organization” known as the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

In doing so, Bethune charged, the group and Bell had violated both committee rules and House rules.

Bell, in November, was rebuked in a letter by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct on the basis that his complaint against DeLay had violated Committee Rule 15(a)(4), which states that a complaint “shall not contain innuendo, speculative assertions, or conclusory statements.”

Following his receipt of Bethune’s memo, Dreier acknowledged in a two-page letter to members of the Rules Committee that the ethics committee’s handling of the DeLay matter had highlighted a “matter of great importance for the House as an institution — a potential loophole in the House rules concerning how ethics complaints are generated.”

Dreier’s Oct. 8 letter, which included a copy of Bethune’s 33-page memo, noted that it “may be that we need to require a vetting of ethics complaints at the start of the process, not the end, to assure that they are not pursued for partisan purposes.”

But Wertheimer cautioned Dreier last week that “any effort to change the House ethics rules” ought to be made only “through a fair and open process” that would include public hearings and advance notice on proposed rules changes.

“As Chairman of the Rules Committee, you have a responsibility to ensure a fair and public process and that the House ethics rules are not revised, undermined or gutted by any last minute, sneak attack on the rules,” Wertheimer wrote.

Wertheimer also rejected Dreier’s Oct. 8 letter as a “shoot the messenger approach” to dealing with serious ethical improprieties by House Members. Punishing ethics accusers would make it even more difficult to spur an ethics investigation of a Member, he said.

“By barring outside groups from filing complaints or otherwise triggering ethics investigations, the House rules already make ethics enforcement a closed, inside process,” Wertheimer stated. “Now, your apparent efforts to further curtail the process for initiating ethics investigations, combined with the threat of Ethics Committee sanctions against the rare Member who may consider filing a complaint, could completely shut down the ethics oversight and enforcement process in the House.”

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