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On his way out the door as chairman of the House ethics committee, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) put it pretty accurately: There is “a bad perception out there that there was a purge in the committee and that people were put in that would protect our side of the aisle better than I did.” That perception — which is all but universal — is now the inheritance of Hefley’s successor, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). It’s up to him to prove the skeptics wrong.

Hastings said the right things on being elevated to Hefley’s post: “I didn’t seek this appointment, but I’m honored by it and will do my best to carry out my duties fairly, with utmost respect for this institution — and without regard to friendship, favor or political party.”

We urgently hope that Hastings will re-read and absorb his own statement. It is the integrity of the House of Representatives that he’s charged with protecting. And doing that job “without regard to friendship, favor or political party” may be a difficult task. After all, he is close friends with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who appointed him. He is thought to be in the mix for a career-making favor: appointment as chairman of the Rules Committee in 2007. And his party’s leadership has made it unmistakable that it does not value independence of mind on the ethics committee.

Hefley was purged, along with Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), as an obvious attempt to bring to heel a committee that had the temerity to investigate allegations of what would appear to ordinary people to be bribery or extortion and to admonish (three times, no less) House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for “overaggressive pursuit” of his party’s agenda.

The committee under Hefley did not find that DeLay had broken any laws or House rules. It said that his promise of support for a retiring Member’s son “could support a finding” of a rules violation. It said that DeLay’s attending an energy company’s fundraiser “created the appearance” of trying to influence pending legislation. And it said that DeLay aroused “serious concerns” of having misused executive branch resources for partisan purposes. Still, by merely admonishing the leader, the panel fueled a firestorm of criticism from DeLay’s enemies, and the leader clearly was not happy.

So, Hastings has been tapped to replace Hefley, and two DeLay loyalists are now assigned to the committee, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who both contributed $5,000 to DeLay’s legal defense fund. In the meantime, Republicans have pushed through a rule requiring that at least one member of the committee must cross party lines to launch an investigation of any Member.

Hastings, to his credit, demonstrated enough independence that he voted with a unanimous committee to admonish DeLay. Still, that “bad perception” lingers like an odor.

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