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Probe Those Trips

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) says he wants to meet with the House ethics committee to address the various allegations against him. We think the committee should take him up on the offer — and launch an investigation into the most serious charges, namely DeLay’s acceptance of trips to Russia and Scotland that were paid for by special interests.

In order to do anything, the ethics committee will have to organize, write its rules, get them approved by the House and hire a staff director. But before any of that can happen, House Democrats will have to drop their boycott of the committee, which they instituted to protest the Republicans’ change of ethics rules. The Democrats have made their point. We hope they can win some rules concessions from the Republicans. But three months into this Congress, the House clearly needs a functioning ethics committee. There is work for it to do, and investigating the Majority Leader’s overseas trips should be task No. 1.

The “fact versus fiction briefing document” that DeLay e-mailed to supporters on Monday says that “Tom DeLay does not stand accused of any violation of any law or [House] rule in any forum and has never been found to have violated any law or rule by anyone.” That is correct, at least technically.

DeLay is also correct to say that the House ethics committee’s admonishments of him stopped short of saying that he had violated any House rule. And, so far as is known, he is not a target of either a Texas prosecutor’s investigation of corporate fundraising for that state’s GOP redistricting campaign or a federal probe investigating the alleged defrauding of American Indian tribes by his friend, lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

It would, however, be a violation of House rules if DeLay traveled to Russia in 1997 and Great Britain in 2000 knowing that those trips were paid for by special interests. He denies such knowledge and stands behind reports he filed asserting that the trips were paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank of which Abramoff was a member of the board.

According to news reports, however, the center seems to have been a pass-through for Abramoff’s clients — a mysterious firm representing the Russian oil and gas industry and gambling interests working to defeat a bill banning Internet wagers. Abramoff accompanied DeLay on both trips, and DeLay voted Abramoff’s way afterward.

These trips warrant investigation. The ethics committee is the proper forum. The committee can launch an informal staff investigation by simple agreement of the chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), and the ranking minority member, Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.). But to really get to the bottom of the matter, the committee will have to launch a full investigation, appointing a special subcommittee and giving it subpoena power and staff resources.

This, under the new rules pushed through by the Republican majority, will require a majority vote of the committee — in other words, at least one Republican will have to vote for it. Democrats should put the committee to the test. If DeLay is certain he’s clean, he’ll let Republican members launch the probe. If Republicans block it, we can all draw our own conclusions.

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