WASHINGTON – All five Republicans on the House ethics committee have financial links to Tom DeLay that could raise conflict-of-interest issues should the panel investigate the GOP majority leader.
Public campaign-finance records show DeLay’s leadership political action committee (PAC) gave $15,000 to the campaign of Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa. – $10,000 in 2000 and $5,000 in 2002. Hart would chair a panel to investigate DeLay if the committee moves forward with a probe.
The same political committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, also has donated to the campaigns of ethics chairman Doc Hastings, of Washington, Judy Biggert, of Illinois, and Tom Cole, of Oklahoma. They are among scores of Republicans DeLay has contributed to. Cole and the remaining panel Republican, Lamar Smith, of Texas, contributed to DeLay’s legal defense fund.
Hart said there is no appearance problem. “That’s just normal” for leaders to contribute to campaigns, she said.
There is precedent for ethics committee members recusing themselves when such conflict issues arise. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., stepped aside in 2002 in the case of then-Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., accused of financial misconduct. Reid had given $500 to Torricelli’s legal defense fund.
“Recusal is pretty much an individual choice, if there is any possibility of a conflict of interest,” said Donald Ritchie, a Senate historian.
Kenneth Gross, an attorney who has represented Democrats and Republicans on ethics issues, said donating to a legal defense fund is problematic.
“I would advise the committee not to use a member who had received contributions from DeLay’s leadership PAC to head the investigation,” he said.
The ethics committee has admonished DeLay five times since 1997, more than any current member of Congress. He has come under renewed scrutiny for taking foreign trips that may have been paid for by lobbyists or foreign agents, which is prohibited.
A DeLay investigation cannot be launched because the committee hasn’t been able to solve a dispute over its rules. Rep. Alan Mollohan and other Democrats refuse to adopt the rules, saying they are designed to protect DeLay and would allow either party to protect members by refusing to act on complaints.
The panel is the only House committee with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats: five each.