House Minority Whip David Bonior accused Republicans on Thursday of trying to change the membership of the House ethics committee to protect Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“From the very beginning, they’ve tried to block, stonewall and delay the investigation,” the Michigan Democrat said. “Now that we’re about to reach a verdict, it looks like they’re trying to rig the jury.”
Bonior’s comments were prompted by newspaper reports that House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, is considering replacing several ethics committee members when the new Congress convenes.
Because of the complexity of the Gingrich case, Bonior argued that moving any member at this point would delay an investigation that has languished for more than two years.
Gingrich is accused of illegally funneling political money through charitable and educational tax-exempt foundations. The committee also is investigating whether the speaker provided “accurate, reliable and complete” information to the committee.
In a statement issued Thursday, Armey said he is reviewing the committee’s membership because a House rule limits ethics committee service to three two-year terms in one decade. Seven of the 10 committee members are reaching that deadline.
In the past, the House simply has ignored the term limit when the ethics committee has been involved in an ongoing, high-profile investigation. For example, several members exceeded the term limit during the probe of former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas.
Armey said Thursday he would not seek to remove the four members serving on an investigative subcommittee of the ethics panel. Those two Democrats and two Republicans are expected to issue a report by the end of the year that either will clear the speaker or recommend that charges be filed against him.
But Armey’s written statement was silent about the remaining six members of the panel, who would be asked to deliberate on sanctions if the subcommittee finds wrongdoing. And that silence fed the controversy.
“To disrupt this process, just weeks after the elections, is the height of political manipulation and cynicism,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a congressional watchdog organization.
Armey said he would meet with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., before making any final recommendations. That meeting had been scheduled for today.