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Cole, Smith to Skip DeLay Probe

Two Republican members of the House ethics committee will not take part in any investigation of Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas), according to the panel’s chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).

Hastings said Wednesday that Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), both of whom donated thousands of dollars to DeLay’s legal defense fund, have voluntarily agreed to step aside during any investigation of the Majority Leader.

In a statement released by Hastings’ office, the Washington Republican said that, in discussions with Cole and Smith, the three lawmakers “have concluded that past contributions by Smith and Cole to a legal defense fund established by the Majority Leader ‘raise doubts — however unwarranted — about whether those Members would be able to judge fairly allegations of impropriety against Mr. DeLay.’”

That view had been raised repeatedly by ethics watchdog groups, which have pushed for Cole and Smith to be removed from the committee outright. Wednesday’s action was clearly an attempt to address those concerns as the Committee on Standards of Official conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known, gears up to begin an investigation of DeLay.

Hastings praised both Cole’s and Smith’s integrity in his statement announcing their recusal from any DeLay probe. “No one can possibly know in advance where any matter before this committee will lead,” Hastings said. “And while I have the utmost respect for the honesty, integrity and impartiality of Lamar Smith and Tom Cole, all three of us agree that it’s best to remove any doubt about this at the very start of the process.”

The committee, which formally organized Wednesday after a drawn-out partisan fight over GOP attempts to rewrite three ethics rules, is expected to begin an informal inquiry very soon into three overseas trips taken by DeLay.

The trips appear to have been funded, at least in part, by former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who himself is under investigation by two Senate committees and the Justice Department over his business dealings with American Indian tribes. It is a violation of House ethics rules for a registered lobbyist or lobbying firms to cover the cost of Congressional trips, even if they are reimbursed for those expenses, as appears to be the case with Abramoff. At least 13 other Members on both sides of the aisle are facing similar scrutiny for trips they took.

DeLay has said the trips were paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative nonprofit group, and were fully in compliance with House ethics rules. Abramoff was a board member for the center until last year.

Replacements for Cole and Smith during a formal DeLay probe would come from a pool of Members chosen by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Cole gave $5,000 to DeLay’s legal defense fund in July 2004, which he pointed out was seven months before he was appointed to the ethics committee.

“I am confident in my ability to fairly and impartially review any matter — including those related to the Majority Leader — the Ethics Committee may take up,” said Cole in a statement released by his office on Wednesday night. “That said, I believe it is important for the committee and for the House that its actions be viewed as nonpartisan and objective by the members of this institution and by the public.”

Cole added: “I have felt since my appointment to the committee in February that I should recuse myself from decisions on matters involving Majority Leader DeLay. With the organization of the committee today and an impending review of the allegations made against the Majority Leader, I felt now was the appropriate time to make that decision public.”

Smith donated $10,000 to DeLay’s defense fund. “After discussions with Chairman Hastings and Mr. Cole, I have decided to recuse myself from any matter that may come before the Committee relating to Mr. DeLay. The three of us all agree that the recusal of Mr. Cole and me would be in the best interests of the Committee,” Smith said in a statement Wednesday night.

“My past service on the Committee demonstrates my ability to remain impartial toward any member and to judge a case based on its merits, not partisanship. I continue to believe that I could judge this matter fairly and I remain committed to judging other matters that come before the Committee fairly.”

Smith added: “However, any decision of the Committee on any matter relating to Mr. DeLay will come under intense scrutiny. If a decision is rendered, it should resolve this matter once and for all. To ensure that any decision is final and not subject to any question, I believe it will be in the best interests of all concerned to recuse myself in such a situation.”

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