Hammering Hefley 

Critics contend ethics chairman facing revenge

Republicans in Washington have backed down from their proposal to make dramatic changes in ethics rules that watchdogs said would have made it virtually impossible to reprimand lawmakers like Tom DeLay, the majority leader of the House of Representatives whose political dealings have been under intense scrutiny.

Meanwhile rumors that Colorado Springs Congressman Joel Hefley of Colorado Springs would be losing his job as leader of the House ethics committee have continued to spread like wildfire.

In October, Hefley led admonishments against DeLay, of Texas, including a reprimand for attending a fund-raiser that involved an energy company seeking favorable legislation. The committee also aired "serious concerns" that DeLay urged federal authorities to track down Democrats in Texas who were hiding to prevent a vote for a redistricting plan that figured to favor Republicans.

This week, the same ethical watchdog groups that have previously complained that Hefley had been too soft on DeLay and too slow to investigate, rushed to Hefley's defense, fearing he was being targeted for political revenge.

"We've questioned his leadership, but I don't think you toss him out and replace him with a puppet," said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Sloan was referring to rumors that Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, who has received funds from DeLay, was tapped to replace Hefley. House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office did not return calls to discuss possible changes to the ethics committee, but an aide to Hefley said the congressman contacted Hastert and is interested in remaining chairman.

"He would like to serve again," said the aide, who asked to remain anonymous.

Earlier this week, Hastert and Rep. David Drier of California sought to impose a House-wide rule that leaders who are indicted would not lose their leadership posts.

Republicans unexpectedly scrapped that piece of the plan and another -- one that would have removed language that representatives conduct themselves "creditably" in House matters.

Sloan said it was impossible to know exactly what happened in a closed-door session on Monday night, but claimed that the flurry of criticism from watchdog groups, newspaper editorials and constituents prompted Republicans to back down.

"They took the worst stuff off the table," she said. "What's ironic is that some of them are getting praised for doing it."

Hefley also condemned the changes proposed by Republican House leaders in a statement his office shared with the Independent.

"I think a number of the criticisms of the ethics process that have been made over the past year are well taken and must be looked at closely," Hefley said. "However, this is not the way to effect meaningful reform. Ethics reform must be bipartisan and this package is not bipartisan."

However, the GOP Tuesday pushed what Sloan called a harder-to-understand, but nonetheless significant, revision to ethics rules. The change , passed by a 220-195 vote, requires a majority vote by the bipartisan ethics committee before an investigation could be launched against a congressman. Currently, only a tie is required.

"The bottom line is that there were some positive developments, but problems remain," said Steven Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington group that tracks campaign finance.

-- Michael de Yoanna


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