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Ethics panel rebukes DeLay again

Tom DeLay
Tom DeLay

WASHINGTON — The House ethics committee unanimously concluded Wednesday that Majority Leader Tom DeLay appeared to link political donations to a legislative favor and improperly persuaded U.S. aviation authorities to intervene in a Texas political dispute.

The committee's findings were an extraordinary second rebuke in six days for one of the nation's most partisan political leaders and most successful money-raisers. The Texas Republican has long been known in the Capitol as "The Hammer."

The committee of five Democrats and five Republicans reached no conclusions on an allegation that DeLay violated Texas campaign finance rules. Instead, the panel delayed action pending an investigation by state authorities. Three DeLay associates were indicted last month in that probe.

DeLay said he considered the complaint against him dismissed, but accepted the committee's findings.

"For years, Democrats have hurled relentless personal attacks at me, hoping to tie my hands and smear my name. All have fallen short, not because of insufficient venom, but because of insufficient merit."

The panel wrote DeLay that his conduct "created an appearance" of favoritism when he mingled at a 2003 golf outing with an energy company's executives, just days after they contributed to a political organization associated with DeLay. The Kansas firm, Westar Energy, was seeking help with legislation then at a critical stage of House-Senate negotiations.

DeLay also raised "serious concerns" by contacting the Federal Aviation Administration to help locate Democratic lawmakers, who were fleeing Texas in an effort to keep state Republican legislators from passing a DeLay-engineered redistricting plan.

DeLay's attorney, former Republican Congressman Ed Bethune, said, "There are no charges pending against Tom DeLay anywhere by anybody. There is no special counsel going to be appointed, there is no investigative subcommittee to be appointed. There is no further action to be taken. There are no sanctions."

Bethune said DeLay hasn't done things differently from other members except that DeLay "is under a microscope."

DeLay told the committee — in explaining his conduct — that he was working to advance his party's legislative agenda, but that didn't sway the panel.

"The fact that a violation results from the overaggressive pursuit of one's legislative agenda simply does not constitute a mitigating factor," the panel said.

The committee's admonishment — expressed in the letter to DeLay and a report criticizing his ethical lapses — nonetheless spared him a lengthy investigation by the ethics panel.

While Democrats and government watchdog groups have unleashed a stream of criticism of DeLay's conduct, the findings are unlikely to derail his ability to push the Republican agenda through the House if the Republicans retain control in November.

It was only last Thursday the same committee, in an investigative report, admonished DeLay for offering to support the House candidacy of a Michigan lawmaker's son, in return for the lawmaker's vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

This time, the committee acted on a three-part complaint from Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, who lost his primary because of the DeLay-inspired redistricting plan.

DeLay, 57, elected in 1984 to a district representing the Dallas suburb of Sugarland, began his ascent after Republicans captured the House in 1994 — successfully running for the No. 3 position as majority whip.

As the chief vote-counter and fund-raiser for House Republicans, he kept the party united on key votes when it possessed only a slim majority over the Democrats.

When Newt Gingrich stepped down as speaker in 1998 after a damaging ethics investigation, it was DeLay who played a major role in raising little-known Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to the speakership. He became Majority Leader in 2002 after Dick Armey, R-Texas, retired.

The committee criticized the timing of the golf outing with Westar executives at a Virginia resort.

DeLay was "in a position to significantly influence" legislation the company sought, not only as a House leader but as a negotiator in House-Senate efforts to resolve differences in the bill, the committee said. The company's provision was inserted in the bill by another lawmaker but eventually was withdrawn.

The allegations of improper contact with the FAA focused on calls from DeLay's office on May 12, 2003, to locate the plane of a Texas Democratic House member.

The lawmaker and Democratic colleagues left the state for Oklahoma to prevent a vote in the Legislature on a GOP redistricting plan.

A report from the Transportation Department's inspector general found that DeLay's request set off a search that spread over eight hours and involved at least 13 FAA employees.

The committee told DeLay that enforcing the rules of the Texas Legislature "is the responsibility of the members, officers and employees of that body."

"The invocation of federal executive branch resources in a partisan dispute before a state legislative body is a different matter entirely and such action raises the serious concerns that are set out here," the committee said.

The ethics committee has the authority to punish members more severely. Lawmakers can be admonished while standing before the entire House or, in the most extreme cases, can be expelled by a two-thirds vote of their peers.

Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.

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