A Democratic congressman yesterday filed an ethics complaint against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, breaking an unofficial seven-year bipartisan cease-fire over such complaints and setting up an ugly election-year fight.
Rep. Chris Bell, Texas Democrat, filed a complaint with the House ethics panel charging that Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican, engaged in “bribery, extortion, fraud, money laundering and the abuse of power.”
“It’s my opinion that Tom DeLay is the most corrupt politician in America today,” said Mr. Bell, a first-term representative whose tenure in the House will end this year after he lost the Democratic primary in a redrawn district.
Mr. DeLay said the charges are meritless and was particularly dismissive of Mr. Bell.
“Evidently he is very bitter about his losing the primary and [is] using the ethics committee to express his bitterness, and I think it’s an unfortunate thing,” Mr. DeLay, who played an active role in Texas’ redistricting, said at his weekly briefing.
“The Democrats even announced they’re coming after me. They even had on their Web site they’re coming after me. Of course, everything I do, every decision that I make, every move that I make, I consult to make sure that it’s legal and it’s ethical,” Mr. DeLay said.
Mr. Bell’s three-part complaint charges that Mr. DeLay solicited contributions from Westar Energy Corporation in exchange for help in passing an amendment to the energy bill; that he used his Texas political action committee to launder corporate contributions through the Republican National Committee to help fund seven Republican candidates for the state Senate and House in Texas; and that he called on the Federal Aviation Administration in 2003 to try to track a plane carrying members of the Texas legislature, who were trying to avoid having to vote on the congressional redistricting plan.
Mr. Bell delivered the 187-page complaint to the Standards of Official Conduct Committee in the House basement in front of news photographers yesterday afternoon.
After a series of charges and countercharges between then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and Democrats in the mid-1990s, House leaders reached an unofficial understanding to tone down ethics complaints. They also rewrote the rules to restrict filing of complaints only to members, excluding outside groups.
The committee has five legislative work days, or 14 days total, to decide whether Mr. Bell’s accusation is a proper complaint. If the members decide it is, they then have up to 45 days to decide to convene an investigation or otherwise dispose of the complaint.
House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Mr. Bell alerted Democratic leaders’ staffs that he was going forward with the complaint. Mr. Hoyer said he neither encouraged nor discouraged Mr. Bell, and Mr. Bell said he didn’t really give leaders that option.
“I think there are substantive questions that have been raised,” Mr. Hoyer said.
Several Republican congressional aides said they expect some Republican member to retaliate by filing a complaint against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, although nobody has yet stepped forward. The Federal Election Commission earlier this year ruled that Mrs. Pelosi opened a second leadership political action committee during the 2002 election cycle that could have been used to circumvent contribution limits.
Mr. Bell said he expects retaliation all around.
“I expect the full wrath of Mr. DeLay’s attack machine,” he said.
Mr. DeLay said he doesn’t encourage Republicans to file retaliatory charges, but that if lawmakers have a “legitimate complaint, not a frivolous one like this one,” then he can’t discourage them.