The ethics committee headed by Colorado Springs Congressman Joel Hefley deserves praise for admonishing a powerful Republican colleague accused of bribing people and abusing his power, say government watchdogs.
But they place blame on Hefley for failing to dig deeper into allegations that have hounded House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for months. They say the congressman from Texas could have faced censure or expulsion, but got little more than a slap on the wrist.
"I don't think the committee wanted to find out that DeLay was extorting and bribing people," said Melanie Sloan, executive director for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C.
Last week, the Committee on the Standards of Official Conduct issued a unanimous memorandum scolding DeLay. One of his political action committees -- Texans for a Republican Majority or TRMPAC -- was accused of soliciting and accepting contributions from Kansas-based Westar Energy in return for favorable legislation.
Hefley's committee did not connect DeLay to any illegal action. Instead, it rebuked DeLay for attending a Westar fund-raiser that left an "appearance of impropriety under House standards of conduct."
DeLay was also criticized for urging federal authorities to hunt down Texas Democrats hiding from their state capitol when a redistricting plan figured to favor Republicans. The bipartisan, 10-member committee admonished DeLay, citing "serious concerns" that his activities were "for a political undertaking."
The committee deferred action on a third allegation that DeLay used TRMPAC to launder contributions to Texas politicians. That allegation is currently under investigation by Texas prosecutors and some say it could yet result in DeLay facing criminal charges.
The reprimands -- two in one week -- came after another earlier this month that DeLay allegedly supported the political race of the son of a congressman who, in exchange, voted in favor of an overhaul in the Medicare program in 2003.
Such a string of admonishments is highly unusual for the ethics committee.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and other groups have for months urged Hefley to look into DeLay's behavior, but they were ignored, Sloan said. Citizens are prevented from filing complaints; only the ethics committee or another member of the House of Representatives can file.
"There's been an unspoken seven-year truce where if you are a member of the House, you don't file ethics complaints," Sloan said.
In June, Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, broke ranks, braving criticism by lodging the extensive allegations against the powerful DeLay -- known as "The Hammer" for his arm-twisting style.
But the inquiry never became a full-fledged investigation, and Bell's chief of staff, John Michael Gonzalez, says the blame for that lies with the person in charge -- Hefley, who declined to be interviewed.
For example, Bell says, Hefley did not create an investigative subcommittee -- a necessary step if he wanted to subpoena documents. Gonzalez cited a Westar Energy internal report that he says shows that DeLay received a $25,000 campaign contribution from the energy company for favorable legislation. That particular document is currently under review by the Federal Elections Commission, according to Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is certain that if the committee had sought the report, "it would have found our charges to be true."
Still, many in Washington have been satisfied because of the political fallout. Several House Democrats now want DeLay to step down. And at least one conservative watchdog group -- nonprofit Judicial Watch Inc. -- has asked him to leave Congress.
DeLay "ought to consider retiring to private life," the group said in a press release.
But DeLay has held on tight and has blasted Bell in the wake of the admonishments.
"Mr. Bell displayed contempt for Congress by manipulating the ethics process in pursuit of his personal vendetta, and today's dismissal says more about Mr. Bell's conduct than it does about anything else," DeLay stated.
Such defiance even after the committee has acted shouldn't be surprising, Sloan said. The committee also resisted appointing an independent counsel even though every Republican on the committee but Hefley had at some point accepted contributions linked to DeLay.
-- Michael de Yoanna