Will Tom DeLay's Ethics Troubles Worsen?

It's been a bad couple of weeks for the reputation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. A grand jury in Texas charged three close associates with violating state fundraising laws, and the House Ethics Committee admonished DeLay himself three times for violating House rules.

On top of all that, a Senate committee held a show-trial hearing on the activities of two former DeLay aides, Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, who collected $66 million in a few years from Indian tribes hoping to protect their casinos by getting close to people at the top in Washington.

The rapid succession of cases put DeLay on front pages all over the country, and cast a shadow across the parade of legislation DeLay was directing through the House.

As of now, however, DeLay has not been charged with any crime, and the ethics panel stopped short of disciplining him more severely. The powerful Texas Republican could have fared much worse. And so many in Washington wonder — did DeLay win again?

The last time the Ethics Committee acted against a member it was the egregious case of Ohio Democrat James A. Traficant Jr., who was convicted on 10 counts of bribery and racketeering and now resides in a federal prison. In 2002, Traficant became just the second member expelled from Congress since the Civil War. But Traficant aside, a truce has prevailed between the parties on the ethics front for the better part of a decade.

That's why it stands as testament to the severity of DeLay's violations that the committee acted at all. Four of the five Republicans on the committee are past recipients of campaign donations from DeLay, yet the full 10-member committee voted unanimously to rebuke the majority leader on all three counts.

On the first count, the bipartisan panel found that DeLay went beyond ethical standards of conduct when trying to convince a fellow Republican to vote for the controversial Medicare prescription drug bill last fall. DeLay offered Michigan Republican Nick Smith his endorsement of Smith's son in the 2004 Republican primary, in return for Smith's vote in favor of the bill. A DeLay endorsement would carry great weight with party elders and potential funders. The Ethics Committee found that to be an improper use of DeLay's authority.

The second rebuke stemmed from DeLay's fundraising activities. A Kansas-based energy company, Westar Energy Inc., donated $25,000 to one of DeLay's several political action committees. Immediately afterwards, Westar executives were invited on a two-day golf trip with the majority leader. During that trip, those executives say, DeLay asked to be advised on any interest Westar energy had in the upcoming federal energy legislation. DeLay says he does not recall making such a request. The Ethics Committee found that this situation at least created the impression that Westar Energy bought access and legislative favors from DeLay.

The third issue involved the illegal use of government resources for political purposes. During a contentious, partisan redistricting fight in Texas, DeLay called on the Federal Aviation Administration to help him track Democratic state legislators who had fled Texas in an airplane to prevent a showdown vote on the new districts.

Taken together, the three counts made for headlines and national TV coverage. But it is also true that the Ethics Committee could have gone much further in its punishment of DeLay. And, as the majority leader's staff points out, that is an option that the committee considered and rejected.

DeLay's attorney in the case, former Arkansas Congressman Ed Bethune, told reporters that the fact that the committee issued no censure and levied no fine or other sanction meant that the charges were — in essence — dismissed. The public admonishments, Bethune suggested, were only slaps on the wrist necessitated by the politicized environment in which the committee worked.

And far from edging away from their Majority Leader, rank and file Republicans have mostly pulled in tight around DeLay, arguing that he is the target of Democrats' personal attacks. Some on the Hill say all this will hamper any ambitions DeLay may harbor to be House speaker someday. But DeLay's current standing is not likely to be challenged when the House Republicans take stock of their leadership after the November election.

That's because whatever zigzagging DeLay has done across boundaries of propriety has been done in what the party considers its own best interests. In Texas, he assured that congressional districts are drawn in Republicans' favor, which will likely lead to at least five new Republican members of the House next year. That increases the chances the GOP will remain in the majority, and it strengthens DeLay's own power within that majority.

So, it seems, DeLay will take his wrist-slapping with little further consequence. But there is a final act of this drama, waiting to be played out.

There was one other complaint against DeLay, on which the Ethics Committee chose to defer judgment. In his campaign to get those new Texas Republicans into the House, DeLay is accused of funneling corporate donations to state candidates. That is illegal under Texas campaign finance law. This is the charge against several of DeLay's top people in Texas.

But the fact that the Ethics Committee chose to defer judgment on that complaint pending a Texas criminal investigation suggests that DeLay could yet become entangled in that case. And since that alleged conduct is far more serious than anything DeLay has been tasked for to date, it would be far more difficult to brush off. As of this date, the investigation back in Texas continues.

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