Four of the five House ethics committee Republicans investigating Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) have accepted money in the past from the fund-raising operation involved in the complaint against him.

While leaders in both parties maintain organizations to raise money for candidates, the appearance of a conflict in DeLay's case is enough alone to warrant hiring an independent counsel of the type that investigated dethroned former speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, watchdog groups said Thursday.

"Mr. DeLay's stature as one of the most powerful members of Congress — with the capacity to extract retribution from anyone — makes it especially difficult for his peers to sit in judgment of him," said Common Cause (search) president Chellie Pingree.

DeLay, who has denied the charges against him, said through a spokesman that an independent counsel is unnecessary. "We have full confidence the ethics committee will handle this in a proper manner," said aide Jonathan Grella.

The Texas Republican's political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority (search), or ARMPAC, contributed $38,731 to four standing ethics committee members in the 1994 to 2004 election cycles, according the Center for Responsive Politics (search) and PoliticalMoneyLine, groups that track political money.

Ethics committee members who got money include Doc Hastings of Washington, $5,930; Judy Biggert of Illinois, $1,764; Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, $14,964; and Steven LaTourette of Ohio, $16,073. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., the ethics panel's chairman, did not receive any contributions from ARMPAC during the period.

In 2001, DeLay used $75,000 from ARMPAC to establish another campaign cash chest, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC).

Rep. Chris Bell (search), D-Texas, filed a complaint last month charging that DeLay illegally solicited and accepted political contributions from Kansas-based Westar Corp. for TRMPAC in return for legislative favors.

Bell's complaint also alleges that DeLay abused his office by getting the Federal Aviation Administration (search) and FBI agents to help track down Texas Democratic legislators when they left the state to prevent Republicans from passing a redistricting bill DeLay wanted. Bell was defeated in a March primary for re-election after he was redistricted.

Hefley expressed confidence that the Republicans on his committee who received money from DeLay's political committee would not be influenced by the contributions — a view echoed by two of the four GOP recipients.

"I know them well," Hefley said Thursday. "I don't have any question that they will do a fair and honorable job, without letting the contributions affect their judgment." But he also said he would support hiring an independent counsel if there was an "overwhelming reason."

The watchdog groups said the ethics cloud over DeLay's head can be removed only through an independent counsel.

His "political opponents would be deflated and accusations of partisanship on the part of the (ethics) committee would be meritless," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

Grella and another DeLay aide attended a news conference by the watchdog groups. They handed out lists of contributions by leaders of watchdog groups to Democrats, and contributions from Democratic leaders to Democrats on the ethics panel.

"It's worth noting that we're in the summer of the election year and this is the Democrats' strategy. They don't have any policy or accomplishments or agenda to speak of, so they are going to stick to politics of personal destruction," Grella said.

The ethics committee, officially known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (search), is reviewing Bell's complaint. It has to decide by early August whether to launch a formal investigation, dismiss the complaint or take more time reviewing it.

Last week, DeLay hired attorney Ed Bethune, a former Arkansas congressman who represented Gingrich in his ethics case. Bethune, a former FBI agent, prosecutor and lobbyist, previously represented DeLay in a fund-raising lawsuit filed by Democrats in 2000.

A Texas district attorney also is investigating whether Republicans funneled corporate contributions to Texas' 2002 House races through DeLay's TRMPAC. Texas law prohibits corporations from contributing to state legislative races. Prosecutors have said DeLay is not a target of that investigation.