As chairman of the House ethics committee, Hefley now holds the power to scrutinize the campaign actions of DeLay, a fellow Republican. But Washington, D.C., groups, including the nonprofit Public Citizen, worry about the fate of the inquiry because for several months they have had trouble getting Hefley's attention over the matter.
"Hefley was just ignoring us because we don't have authority to file ethics complaints," said Craig Holman, campaign-finance lobbyist for Public Citizen.
The 10-member ethics committee accepts only complaints filed by members of Congress. Several weeks ago, the committee began studying the allegations after Texas Rep. Chris Bell formally complained. Bell, a Democrat, charges in a 187-page document that DeLay solicited campaign contributions from Kansas-based Westar Energy Inc. in exchange for favorable national energy legislation.
He also accuses a DeLay political-action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, or TRMPAC, of funneling corporate contributions to targeted Texas state Legislature races while failing to disclose finances.
Taking it seriously
DeLay has denied the charges, but has refused to make public his written response. In a closed meeting last week, the committee postponed until Sept. 20 its decision whether the allegations merit an official investigation. Hefley and West Virginia Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, the committee's minority Democratic leader, wrote: "This extension will help ensure that we have sufficient time to obtain and consider information pertinent to the determination we are to make."
For the moment, that satisfies Bell.
"It shows they are taking this very seriously," said his spokesman Eric Burns.
Public Citizen's Holman, who notes House ethics complaints are rare, questions the timing of the September deadline. He worries the committee could be poising itself to ignore the complaint amid election hype, when the committee's decision could easily be obscured in the expected flurry of election news and campaign ads.
"It is rather clear this warrants a closer look, if nothing else," he said. "The complaint itself is already adequately supported."
Holman's biggest concern is that Hefley will choose to rely on the findings of a Texas grand jury that is also probing DeLay's campaign finances.
"To sit and speculate as to what some other group will do is the wrong move," Holman said.
The House ethics committee sets standards for the behavior of its members -- a matter separate from the Texas investigation, he added.
DeLay, known among colleagues as "The Hammer" for his iron-fisted tactics, created TRMPAC three years ago. In doing so, he used funds from his influential national political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, ARMPAC, which has nearly $2.9 million in campaign receipts according to federal election records. ARMPAC funds Republicans fighting close election battles in hopes of maintaining Republican House control.
Hefley is the only Republican on the ethics committee who hasn't received contributions from ARMPAC.
Ethics committee members Steven LaTourette of Ohio, Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, Doc Hastings of Washington state and Judy Biggert of Illinois accepted more than $36,000 from ARMPAC since its founding in 1993, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks election finances. A Hefley spokeswoman declined to discuss whether the contributions complicate decision making on the ethics committee.
Groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington are concerned that a conflict of interest, or the appearance of one, exists. The group has called for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Bell's complaint.
But Hefley so far doesn't agree.
"I have never supported doing an outside counsel. This is an internal police mechanism for the House of Representatives," he was recently quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Bell has not yet joined calls for an independent counsel as he awaits action from the ethics committee. But his spokesman, Burns, noted that such a body was appointed to make recommendations in 1997 regarding then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethics violations.
"It's difficult for the House to police itself," Burns said. "Mr. DeLay is the most powerful man in Congress. Why do we want to put members of the ethics committee in that very difficult position?"
-- Michael de Yoanna
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