Monday, May 16, 2005

When the partisan impasse over rules and procedures on the House ethics committee ends, the first member to face the panel won’t be House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, but rather Democrat Jim McDermott of Washington.

The Seattle-area congressman, one of the most vocal critics of Republicans, has been under investigation by the panel since last year over his role nearly nine years ago in the illegal taping and distribution of a phone conversation involving then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

A federal court already has determined, for a civil lawsuit against Mr. McDermott, that the liberal lawmaker illegally distributed the tape, a judgment of the sort that usually prompts the House to take some action.

Sources close to the committee said the McDermott case was on the agenda for the panel’s organizational meeting two weeks ago, but it was removed when it was clear that Democrats wouldn’t vote to continue the investigation, as required by committee rules.

“He’s headed for a bad end,” said one source last week, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “As a general proposition, the easiest cases for the ethics committee to handle is one where the courts have made a decision.”

Democrats have paralyzed the evenly split committee, where bipartisan cooperation is needed for every action, citing unfair rules changes and staffing decisions. But another source close to the committee said the Democrats can’t delay action for much longer, because Republicans relented last month to Democrats’ demands that they repeal the 2004 set of rules changes.

Once the panel is back in business, Mr. McDermott’s case is first, because it is nearly finished, and any charges against Mr. DeLay would take several weeks to investigate.

“Under the rules, the new Congress has to vote to continue [the McDermott investigation],” the source said. “We will do it. The Democrats have to know that, on the merits, they can’t block this indefinitely.”

Republicans accuse the Democrats of engaging in cynical politics, citing comments by Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, that his party wants to make ethics charges against Mr. DeLay an issue in the 2006 elections.

Mr. DeLay and Republicans want to start an investigation into charges the majority leader violated House rules by taking trips paid for by lobbyists. They insist Mr. DeLay will be cleared and such a verdict would neutralize the issue as a campaign hammer for Democrats.

The McDermott case began on Dec. 21, 1996, when John and Alice Martin, two longtime Democrats from Fort White, Fla., were listening to a police scanner in their car when they picked up the voice of Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, engaged in a conference call with House GOP leaders.

Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Boehner, then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey and then-Rep. Bill Paxon of New York were discussing a coordinated response to ethics charges against the speaker that were expected to be released that day.

The Martins had a tape recorder in their car and recorded the conversation, telling PBS’ “NewsHour” program in 1997 that they sensed they were listening to “a part of history,” and said they planned to give the tape to their grandchild “when he was old enough to hear it.”

But the tape suggested that Mr. Gingrich was breaking a deal with the ethics committee that he not orchestrate a response to the charges.

The couple traveled to Washington and handed over the tape to Mr. McDermott, who was the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee at the time. Two days later, the New York Times ran a front-page story about how Mr. Gingrich might have violated his agreement with the panel.

Mr. McDermott, however, found himself in hot water because it is a federal offense to secretly record a telephone conversation and share the information with the public.

A federal court found that Mr. McDermott illegally distributed the tape and ordered him to pay Mr. Boehner, who filed a lawsuit against him, $60,000 in punitive damages. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling last month.

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