Democrats seen poised to file ethics complaints against GOP members

John Byrne

It seems the word “embattled” has dropped from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s name.

But behind the scenes, Democrats are moving toward filing ethics complaints against Republican members of Congress. Aides tell RAW STORY filings may come within weeks.

DeLay—who took heat over trips financed by a lobbyist and various other allegations—doesn’t appear to be the Democrats’ first target. House Democratic aides said they expect the Ethics Committee will begin an investigation of DeLay’s activities without a formal complaint.


Since the Ethics Committee resolved a dispute over staffing, Democrats have quietly altered their rhetoric on ethics. Once the committee hires a fresh staff, which is expected within weeks, the House is ripe for what some dub an “ethics war.”

Democrats have been slow to file complaints, though they recently took out six newspaper ads attacking Republicans in their districts. Naomi Seligman, a spokesperson for the watchdog Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, says her group has asked “dozens” of Democratic congressmembers to file complaints—to no avail.

“I think if members stand for any kind of ethical integrity, they need to file a complaint,” she quipped. “Members need to be held accountable for their actions, and if they’re not they need to be investigated.”

According to a veteran aide, Democrats are looking most closely at three GOP members: Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH), Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) and DeLay.

Ney took a trip to Scotland footed by Jack Abramoff, a conservative power lobbyist under investigation by various federal agencies. He also won $32,000 at a Scottish casino on a $200 bet—a figure which critics note roughly equaled his credit card debt, which he paid off that year.

Cunningham engaged in several questionable deals with a defense contractor, posting enormous gains on the sale of his home and receiving free use of the contractor’s yacht. His estate—along with the contractor’s business—was raided by the FBI last week.

Ney could be a more likely target: a special House rule allows the Ethics Committee to defer complaints against members that are currently under investigation by another agency; Cunningham is being questioned by the FBI and has received subpoenas in his case.

Seligman hammered Democrats for not filing a complaint on Cunningham.

“I don’t know if you have to have stolen more than $700,000 but clearly that’s the starting line,” she quipped, referring to the dubious sale of the congressman’s home. “Clearly your home can be raided, your business can be raided, your colleagues’ businesses can be raided and that’s still not enough.

“I guess they’re still looking for the smoking gun,” she added. “It’s absurd.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean told RAW STORY this week that Democrats plan to file formal complaints.

“I think Democrats are going to file ethics complaints, and we’ve talked to Democrats who are,” Dean said.

Another aide close to the discussions agreed.

“Either [the Committee] will self-initiate or someone might likely file,” the staffer said. “I think that people will file.”

Such complaints could be an embarrassment for Republican members and draw admonishments from their own colleagues, or other sanctions. They could also misfire on Democrats: Republicans could be cleared, and Democrats might face filings of their own in response.

Ed Petru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, believes Democrats will only indict themselves by filing complaints.

“As a practical matter this is a losing issue for Democrats,” Petru said. “It’s going to be impossible for the Democratic Party to make an issue of ethics when the Democratic leaders are guilty of some of the things they’re accusing Republicans of doing.

“Every time that they accuse Republicans of doing something unethical, invariably there are a handful of Democrats vulnerable on the exact same issue,” he added. “They end up looking like hypocrites.”

Pelosi looks to be the Republicans’ first target. Petru notes she was slapped with a $21,000 fine last year for funneling more than $200,000 in illegal contributions to Democratic candidates. She was also criticized in 2003 for carving out one million dollars from a federal spending bill to underwrite a thinktank founded by her former campaign treasurer.

Pelosi, however, is not alone—congressmembers are accused every year of slipping “pork” into spending bills. And top Republican leaders—including DeLay and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) have been snared in fundraising scandals of their own.

One of Blunt’s campaign committees contributed $50,000 to a state committee, which then gave $40,000 to his son Matt Blunt’s gubernatorial campaign eight days later. Another committee the congressman controlled was eventually fined $3,000 for improperly giving money to state candidates in Missouri.

DeLay has seen myriad allegations of fundraising scandals, and was admonished by the House Ethics Committee last year. Aides to his Texas fundraising arm were recently found guilty of money laundering.

Concern even led Republicans to temporarily allow a rule change so that he would be able to continue to lead if he had been indicted, a rule which was later rescinded.

The Ethics Committee delivered DeLay an admonishment last year on the belief that an energy company’s $56,000 contribution gave them a seat in drafting energy legislation. That company admitted this week that they had given $25,000 to attend a golf outing with the Texas congressman.

One Democratic aide suggested Rep. John Murtha (D-PA)—the top Democrat on a defense subcommittee—might also face a complaint. Murtha recently boasted of creating jobs in his district under a bill he authored which included spending for ten companies represented by a lobbying firm where his brother is a senior partner.

Either way, the heat is on in the Capitol—Dean hinted to RAW STORY that ethics paperwork may be underway—and once the committee hires investigators, the fragile ethics “truce” could shatter.

“The committee will be forced to do its job when it’s finally finished its staffing process,” one aide remarked.

Originally published on Friday July 8, 2005.


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