Coalition of National Watchdog Organizations Call for an Overhaul of the House 'Moribund' Ethics Oversight Process
The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Judicial Watch, Democracy 21, the Center for Responsive Politics, Public Citizen, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Public Campaign call for ethics oversight reform, and want a full investigation of Texas Representative Tom DeLay's abuse of the ethical code of conduct and other alleged wrongdoing.
Apr 16, 2004 -- Joint Press Release: House Must Overhaul "Effectively Dead" Ethics Oversight Process
An ideologically diverse coalition of the nation's leading watchdog organizations - the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Judicial Watch, Democracy 21, the Center for Responsive Politics, Public Citizen, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Public Campaign - today issued the following statement calling on the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul its moribund ethics oversight process:
Today we call on the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul its ethics oversight procedures, which have been effectively dead for nearly seven years.
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct should begin this process by agreeing to fully investigate two serious matters now before it: (1) alleged attempts to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI), and (2) Majority Leader Tom DeLay's (R-TX) alleged use of a children's charity for political purposes.
If the Committee does investigate these matters, however, that welcome action will be the exception that proves the rule.
The ethics oversight process in the House is completely paralyzed. For years, serious allegations of wrongdoing have been neither investigated nor punished by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the only congressional entity with jurisdiction over the propriety of Members' activities.
Three factors have worked in concert to render the House an ethics-free zone:
The 1997 Rules Change. In 1997, the House voted to change its own rules to forbid any outside group or citizen from bringing a complaint to request an investigation of an alleged ethics violation by a Member. This put the House on a distinctly different footing from the Senate, which allows outside complaints. As a result, neither ordinary citizens nor watchdog organizations are able to trigger investigations. Only Members may bring complaints against other Members.
The Members' Détente. Since around the same time, Members of the House have observed an informal "ethics détente" that has allowed numerous allegations of wrongdoing to go uninvestigated. Under this unwritten understanding, all Representatives have had an understanding that no complaints will be filed by Members of either party - thereby insuring that few complaints can, or will, be filed in the House. As a result, only two Members have lodged ethics complaints in the past seven years. The last was in 2001, when Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) alleged that Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA) had obstructed a police investigation into the disappearance of Chandra Levy. The Committee took no action.
The Ethics Committee's Abdication. The ethics committee has power to act on its own, without a complaint, to investigate possible ethics breaches - and resolutely refuses to use it. In the past seven years, the Committee has taken disciplinary action against a Member on only five occasions. In three of those cases, the controversy in question was also the subject of a criminal proceeding, making the issue virtually impossible for the Committee to ignore. (Indeed, in two of those three cases, the Member in question had already pleaded guilty to a criminal offense (Rep. Jay Kim (R-CA) or been convicted of one (Rep. James Traficant (D-OH)).
As a result of this "triple threat" to real oversight, serious allegations of wrongdoing go unanswered, further diminishing public trust in Congress.
Today, we challenge the House to set this situation right.
The most important step the House can take is to change its rules to once again allow ordinary citizens and watchdog groups to request investigations through formal complaints.
We also challenge individual members to give up the absurd "ethics" truce that has resulted only in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and increased politicization of ethics issues.
Finally, we call on the Committee itself to act in the public interest by using its own authority, granted by 14(a)(3) and 18 of the Committee's rules, to investigate complaints and bring disciplinary action where appropriate.
By abandoning these destructive practices, the House can begin rebuilding the American people's lost faith in their public institutions.
Click here to review the joint letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and joint letter to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urging them to overhaul the House ethics oversight process.
Click here to review the Campaign Legal Center's December 18, 2003 letters to the House Ethics Committee and the Department of Justice and related articles regarding the bribery allegations involving Rep. Nick Smith.
Click here to read the Campaign Legal Center's December 3, 2003 letters to the House Ethics Committee and the Department of Justice regarding bribery allegations involving Rep. Nick Smith.
Click here to read the statement issued by Trevor Potter of the Campaign Legal Center.
Click here to read the statement by Mark Clack of Public Campaign.
Click here to read the statement released by Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch.
Click here to read the statement issued by Craig Holman of Public Citizen.
Click here to read the statement issued by Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Click here to read the statement issued by Chellie Pingree of Common Cause.
Click here to read the statement issued by Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Click here to read the letter filed by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to the U.S. Attorney General on investigating allegations of bribery by Rep. Smith on December 3, 2003.
Click here to read the statement issued by Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21.
Click here to read the statement by Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21.
Click here to read the Democracy 21 Press Release on DeLay issued January 28, 2004.
Click here to read the letter by Democracy 21 to the House Ethics Committee on January 28, 2004.
Click here to read the letter from Democracy 21 to the IRS on investigating Representative DeLay dated December 18, 2003
Click here to see the "Decade of Inaction" handout.
The Campaign Legal Center
Ethics Panel Rebukes DeLay; Complaint Still Pending
Common Cause is encouraged by the House Ethics Committee's admonishment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) for offering a political favor in exchange for a member's vote on a bill. But the panel must still resolve a second, unrelated complaint involving Rep. DeLay.
The Ethics Committee issued a 62-page report following a six-month investigation into allegations made by Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) that someone tried to bribe him on the House floor for his vote in support of the Medicare prescription drug bill last November. The Ethics Committee concluded that Rep. DeLay told Rep. Smith – who is retiring from Congress this year – that he would endorse Rep. Smith's son's congressional bid if Rep. Smith voted for the Medicare drug bill. Smith did not vote for the bill – which passed by only five votes after House leaders held the voting period open for an extraordinarily long three hours. (Link here to Medicare report). You can read more on the story from the Washington Post and New York Times.(See both articles below)
It is commendable that the Ethics Committee took seriously its responsibilities to investigate and shed light on what happened on the House floor during the Medicare vote. But the panel must also investigate a second complaint against DeLay, which involves allegations by Rep. Chris Bell (D-TX) of improper fundraising and abuse of power.
Since the Ethics Committee works in secret, it is not clear when or if the panel will consider this matter before this session of Congress ends at the end of the year. After that, the complaint could likely be dropped since the complainant, Rep. Bell, is leaving Congress. Common Cause calls on the Ethics Committee to resolve Rep. Bell's complaint in a timely and thorough manner. We believe the only credible way to do this is with an outside counsel, an impartial third party investigator who is often brought in when complaints are filed against congressional leadership.
Given Rep. DeLay's stature as one of the most powerful members of Congress, we believe it would be very difficult for his peers on the Ethics Committee and in the full House to sit in judgment of him. Consider that Rep. DeLay's federal leadership political action committee has contributed $27,000 to current Republican members of the ethics committee since 1995. The PAC has given more than $1.3 million to current Republicans in Congress from January 2001 through June 30. Please join us in continuing to urge the House Ethics Committee to appoint an outside counsel to investigate the allegations in the complaint against Rep. DeLay.
Ethics Coalition: Texas Indictments Make DeLay Ethics Investigation More Urgent
October 1, 2004
House Ethics Panel Says DeLay Tried to Trade Favor for a Vote
By CARL HULSE, NY TIMES
WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 - Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader, was admonished by the House ethics committee on Thursday night for improperly trying to win the vote of a Michigan lawmaker during a heated floor fight over a health care bill last year.
In a lengthy report, the panel said it had determined in its investigation of allegations first raised by the lawmaker, Representative Nick Smith, a Republican, that Mr. DeLay offered to endorse Mr. Smith's son in a Congressional primary if he would support a measure then teetering on the edge of defeat.
The special four-person subcommittee that conducted the inquiry said it had "deliberated extensively" over the actions of Mr. DeLay, who is one of the most powerful members of Congress, and weighed his actions against the leadership's traditional role of trying to round up votes. The report concluded that Mr. DeLay went too far in trying to secure a victory.
"The promise of political support for a relative of a member goes beyond the boundaries of maintaining party discipline, and should not be used as the basis of a bargain for members to achieve their respective goals," the committee said, saying there was evidence to find Mr. DeLay in violation of House rules.
The panel recommended no further action against Mr. DeLay or two others it also admonished - Mr. Smith and another Michigan Republican, Candice S. Miller. The committee is considering a separate complaint against Mr. DeLay on a series of allegations made by a Texas Democrat, but it made no disclosure of its intentions on those accusations.
In a statement, Mr. DeLay said that he had not meant to violate House rules and that the panel had never ruled on this type of activity before.
"In this report the committee has provided guidance regarding a novel and very specific subject matter,'' he said. "I accept their guidance."
Mr. Smith, who is retiring, first brought the episode to public attention after the Nov. 22 vote when he charged in a personal column and in interviews that Republican leaders offered him "bribes" in the form of campaign help for his son, who was running to replace him. Interest groups and Democrats began clamoring for an investigation.
Mr. Smith later said that there was no specific mention of money and that the arm-twisting did not meet the legal definition of bribery.
Mr. Smith, who could not be reached for a response on Thursday night, was also admonished by the committee for "speculation and exaggeration" and for "making public statements that risked impugning the reputation of the House." The report said that contrary to his claims, he was never offered $100,000 or any other sum for his son's campaign.
Ms. Miller was also rebuked for promising not to support Mr. Smith's son because of the vote, an action that the panel called an "unprovoked threat of retaliation." The ethics panel said her action was significant since she is an influential figure in Michigan politics.
In a statement, Ms. Miller said she accepted the panel's "findings that I may have committed a 'discreet violation of the rules.' I also agree with the committee's finding that there was no evidence adduced of a pattern of misconduct."
The middle-of-the-night Medicare vote was memorable. The Republican leadership held the vote open for almost three hours to force the measure through, over the objections of Democrats who claimed it was not expansive enough and conservative Republicans like Mr. Smith who argued it cost too much.
Mr. Smith, who like other Republican opponents of the bill was under pressure from his colleagues on the floor, voted against the bill. His son later lost his Congressional primary.
The ethics committee, known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, said it took sworn testimony from 17 House members, including Mr. DeLay and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who also talked with Mr. Smith on the floor.
This is not Mr. DeLay's first brush with the ethics committee; he has been previously chastised for pushing too hard for trade groups to hire Republican officials. The panel is now weighing whether to pursue an inquiry into another complaint against him.
Representative Chris Bell, a Texas Democrat who lost his seat in a primary this year under a redistricting plan that had been aided by Mr. DeLay, lodged a complaint accusing Mr. DeLay of illegally soliciting campaign contributions, laundering campaign contributions to influence state legislative races and improperly using his office to influence federal agencies.
Those charges are intertwined with charges a grand jury in Texas is investigating. Earlier this month the grand jury returned indictments against three aides of Mr. DeLay who helped run a political action committee he created. Mr. DeLay has denied wrongdoing in the case.
Ethics Panel Rebukes DeLay
Majority Leader Offered Favor To Get Peer's Vote
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2004; Page A01
The House ethics committee admonished Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) last night for offering a political favor to a Michigan lawmaker in exchange for the member's vote on last year's hard-fought Medicare prescription drug bill.
After a six-month investigation, the committee concluded that DeLay had told Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) he would endorse the congressional bid of Smith's son if the congressman gave GOP leaders a much-needed vote in a contentious pre-dawn roll call on Nov. 22.
"This conduct could support a finding that . . . DeLay violated House rules," the committee said in its 62-page report. ". . . It is improper for a member to offer or link support for the personal interests of another member as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal."
The committee said the report "will serve as a public admonishment" of DeLay, Smith and one other GOP lawmaker involved in the negotiations that occurred on the House floor as Republican leaders scrambled for support on a much-debated bill to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare. They eventually extended the roll call for nearly three hours to avoid an embarrassing loss.
The ethics panel, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, said it would take no further action in the case.
It's rare for a high-ranking congressional leader to draw the admonition of the ethics committee. In January 1997, the ethics committee voted 7 to 1 to recommend that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) be reprimanded and pay a $300,000 penalty for disregarding House rules in misusing tax-exempt funds to promote his conservative political agenda.
DeLay has been the subject of several ethics complaints over the years. In May 1999, the House ethics committee privately chastised DeLay for threatening a Washington trade association with retaliation for hiring a prominent Democrat as its president.
Last month, a Texas grand jury indicted three of DeLay's political associates in a case involving a political committee affiliated with the majority leader. The House ethics committee is weighing a complaint against DeLay, unrelated to the Smith matter, which involves the Texas group and two other matters.
In a statement last night, DeLay said he accepted the ethics committee's "guidance," adding: "During my entire career I have worked to advance my party's legislative agenda. However, to this end, I would never knowingly violate the rules of the House."
Smith, who is retiring this year, touched off the ethics case soon after DeLay helped round up enough votes to pass the Medicare bill. He wrote a newspaper article in Michigan saying unnamed House leaders had promised substantial financial and political support for his son Brad -- who was running to succeed him -- if Smith would vote aye. Smith, who voted against the bill, also wrote that members had threatened to work against his son's campaign if he voted no. Brad Smith lost the Aug. 3 GOP primary.
Last night's report concluded that no one offered money to Brad Smith's campaign in exchange for the father's vote. It admonished Nick Smith for making allegations that appeared to stem from "speculation or exaggeration." It said Smith "failed to exercise reasonable judgment and restraint," and made statements that "risked impugning the reputation of the House."
The report also admonished Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.) for making comments about Brad Smith during the Nov. 22 roll call that appeared to be "a threat of retaliation" for Nick Smith's vote against the bill.
According to the report, Nick Smith told ethics committee investigators that DeLay approached him on the House floor during a series of votes leading to the final showdown on the Medicare bill. Smith told the panel that DeLay "told him that he would personally endorse Representative Smith's son in the Republican primary" if Smith "voted in favor of the Medicare legislation." According to Smith's version, DeLay added, "that's my last offer," and the congressman "teared up" at the majority leader's offer. The exchange lasted "about eight seconds," Smith said.
The report said DeLay testified to the committee "that he did say words to the effect of: 'I will personally endorse your son. That's my final offer.' " DeLay recalled that the exchange took place before the three-hour roll call on the bill's final passage, the report said.
DeLay told the investigators that Smith "first raised the subject of his son's campaign," and DeLay believed Smith was "fishing to see what I would say."
DeLay had brushed aside a similar overture from Smith several weeks earlier, but this time offered to endorse the son in exchange for Smith's vote, the report said. DeLay told investigators that if Smith had voted for the Medicare bill, then the majority leader "would have made good on his promise and endorsed Brad Smith."