Fallout from a House ethics probe

Charges of vote trading and unethical fundraising against DeLay may curb his ability to raise money.

On Monday, a fundraiser to reelect House majority leader Tom DeLay was quietly rescheduled a few hours earlier than previously announced - a trifle in ordinary times.

But these are not ordinary times for the top GOP fundraiser, now facing daily questions on the only issue that does topple powerful leaders in the increasingly voterproof House of Representatives: ethics.

"History has shown that once top party leaders are tainted by ethics accusations, there is a downward spiral," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Last week, Mr. DeLay and two other House members received a rare public "admonishment" from the House ethics committee. He could face a full investigation on a more serious complaint - or dismissal of the complaint - as early as this week.

Meanwhile, three DeLay aides were recently indicted by a grand jury in Travis County, Texas. Two other DeLay associates face an ongoing probe by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee concerning some $66 million in fees from tribal casino clients.

"The committee has received hundreds of thousands of documents, and we are laying the groundwork for further investigation," says Paul Morehead, chief counsel for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Several more hearings could begin as early as a lame-duck session of Congress after November elections, he adds.

While DeLay has not been called as a witness nor cited in either investigation involving associates, the probes add to a cloud of ethical questions on the eve of an election.

And that's the point, says DeLay and his spokesmen: The charges and timing are politically motivated. "This is 40 days before the election, you do the math," said DeLay, commenting on the indictment last month of three aides by Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. "It's like other partisan attacks leveled against me and dropped after the election."

But critics say the charges are already cutting into the majority leader's greatest strength: his capacity to raise money for GOP candidates.

Texas Democrats charged that the fundraiser was quietly rescheduled for 8 a.m. to avoid the possibility of street protests and a media stakeout. "With his top fundraising aides under felony indictment and facing criminal charges of bribery, extortion, fraud, [and] money laundering, and abuse of power himself, DeLay has been reduced to skulking around like a fugitive," says Texas Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting.

Last week, organizers of another fundraiser in Louisiana "abruptly canceled plans for a visit from DeLay," further evidence that Republicans are "distancing themselves," he adds.

Texas Democrats are still smarting from a 2003 GOP-engineered state redistricting, backed by DeLay, that shifted many Democrats into tougher electoral contests this fall. Political handicappers say that Democrats at the national level could lose as many as five House seats, due to Texas redistricting.

"What starts to happen traditionally is that when people around a central figure get in trouble, people begin to move away. They begin to get less effective as fundraisers," says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign contributions.

Although there is a lag in reporting campaign contributions, DeLay is still leading Republicans in the amount and scope of giving to other candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. DeLay's leadership PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority, has raised more than $3.2 million in this electoral cycle, and contributed to at least 88 House candidates. However, he canceled gala fundraising events at the Republican National Convention and kept a low public profile there, following criticism over whether soliciting funds from corporate contributors, even for a private charity, violated new federal campaign laws.

"DeLay's fundraising is not just about himself and friends, but about Democrats," says Mr. Noble. "For a long time, it was understood that lobbyists would give to both parties to cover their bets. DeLay spearheaded that movement that Republicans wouldn't be happy just getting their share, but wanted to cut off money to Democrats. That is a real shift in how business is done in Washington."

In 1999, the House Ethics Committee privately rebuked DeLay for threatening retaliation against an electronics trade group that hired a Democrat as its top Washington lobbyist. Last week, the panel publicly admonished DeLay for offering to personally endorse GOP Rep. Nick Smith's son in his election bid in exchange for a favorable vote on the Medicare bill. In response, DeLay said that he accepted the panel's guidance and that he "would never knowingly violate the rules of the House."

However, a pending complaint by retiring Rep. Chris Bell (D) of Texas is potentially more serious. The Bell complaint, filed after the Texas lawmaker lost his seat due to redistricting, ranges from bribery and fundraising violations to the improper use of a federal agency to track Texas Democrats fleeing the 2003 redistricting vote.

When the Texas representative first filed a complaint against DeLay, no member of the Democratic leadership supported him, a move which would have violated an unwritten ethics "truce" that had been in effect in the House. However, since last week's panel decision, top Democrats are taking up ethical cudgels.

"The coercion of Nick Smith unfortunately is just part of the pattern of actions which seek to undermine the democratic process and the independence of both Members and the private sector.... The Republican Party's questionable behavior will eventually escort them from power," says House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer.

Moreover, the issue is beginning to help Democrats, says Eric Burns, a Bell spokesman. "All of the Texas 5 [threatened by redistricting] are very competitive with their Republican counterparts in raising money. This issue is now being used effectively in congressional races around the country."

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