Thursday, April 21, 2005

Democrats yesterday rejected an offer by House Republicans to begin an investigation into ethics accusations against Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The offer was made by Republicans on the House ethics committee who wanted, in exchange, an agreement from Democrats to convene the ethics panel today and accept at least a revised version of the new rules for the committee.

“We do not initiate investigative committees in press conferences,” said Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, of West Virginia. The ranking Democrat on the ethics panel, Mr. Mollohan opposes the changes to committee rules that Republicans forced through earlier this year on a party-line vote.

Mr. Mollohan’s dismissal came less than an hour after the Republican offer was made public in a press conference by Rep. Doc Hastings, the chairman of the ethics committee who said he already had made the offer privately in conversations with Mr. Mollohan.

“I am here today with three of my four colleagues on the ethics committee to announce that we are all prepared to vote at the earliest opportunity to impanel an investigation subcommittee to review various allegations concerning travel and other actions by Mr. DeLay,” said Mr. Hastings, a Republican from Washington state. “We hope that opportunity will come tomorrow, at the next meeting of the full ethics committee.”

Mr. Hastings refused to say whether he had discussed his plan with Mr. DeLay of Texas, who later issued a statement praising the efforts of Republicans on the ethics committee.

“I appreciate House Republicans’ continued efforts to search for a way to get the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct up and running,” Mr. Hastings said. “Republicans agree that the House of Representatives needs a functioning committee.”

For weeks, Mr. DeLay has openly invited an investigation by the ethics committee, accusing Democrats of stalling to prevent him from clearing his name.

“The only way I can be cleared is through the ethics committee, so they don’t want one,” Mr. DeLay told The Washington Times last week.

Mr. DeLay also accused Democrats of protecting Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, who awaits an investigation by the House ethics panel after losing a federal lawsuit that accused him of passing along an illegally taped 1997 telephone conversation. In an October ruling on that suit, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan declared that Mr. McDermott’s “willful and knowing misconduct rises to the level of malice in this case.”

“One of [Democrats’] best friends, Jim McDermott, is being investigated, and they don’t want him to be kicked out of Congress,” Mr. DeLay said last week. “I mean, this guy has been found guilty — guilty by a court of law — and they don’t want an ethics committee.”

Mr. Mollohan dismissed the idea that the Democratic position stems from any particular case. He accused Republicans of running roughshod over Democrats with three changes to the rules governing how the ethics committee investigates complaints against members.

Besides the partisan vote that changed the rules, Democrats’ primary objection is to the new rule that automatically dismisses an ethics complaint if no action is taken after 45 days. Mr. Mollohan said the time period is too short for a thorough preliminary investigation and that the automatic dismissal would give members an incentive to avoid tough votes by simply allowing complaints to expire.

Yesterday, Mr. Hastings proposed extending the time period to 90 days and vowed that he would require votes on all matters, though he wouldn’t agree to support an official change of that rule.

His proposal — coupled with the offer to immediately begin an investigation of Mr. DeLay — was an effort to prove that the ethics committee rules changes have nothing to do with protecting Mr. DeLay, Mr. Hastings said.

“This should remove any doubt about the true intent of these rules changes,” he told reporters. “They were designed to treat all members more fairly, not protect any individual member from any action by the committee.”

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the Republican proposal was “a charade and an absolute nonstarter” for Democrats.

“It is a calculated attempt to divert attention from the fact that the Republican majority has neutered the ethics committee in the House by imposing partisan rules that hamstring any meaningful inquiry, sacking the former chairman and two other Republican members of the committee, and firing nonpartisan professional staffers,” he said.

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