WASHINGTON – The House ethics committee could decide soon whether to dig deeper into a complaint that Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) misused his office for partisan Republican activities.
The committee might chart its imminent course before the weekend, Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., said Tuesday. Congress adjourns at the end of the week until after Labor Day, although the panel — officially the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (search) — could confer during the recess.
Hefley and the ranking Democrat, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, have the option of seeking additional information on the allegations prior to the committee before deciding whether to launch a formal investigation.
Democratic House members have demanded an investigation of DeLay and plan to make his conduct a campaign issue. Rep. Chris Bell (search), a Democratic lawmaker from DeLay's home state of Texas, who was defeated in the primary, filed a formal complaint in mid-June.
Watchdog groups have recommended that an outside counsel handle the investigation because four of five Republicans on the evenly divided panel have received contributions from DeLay's fund-raising operations.
Hefley said the committee's work would not be influenced by the fall election. He promised to allow no attempts to defer decisions solely to delay the case until after the fall campaign.
The panel could decide, however, to postpone a formal probe on at least the part of the complaint that involves DeLay's fund-raising activities on behalf of Texas legislative candidates. A Texas prosecutor is investigating those activities.
"We have to decide whether to go forward or ask for additional time," Hefley said. "There will be no effort made to extend anything past the election."
DeLay told reporters Tuesday that "filing frivolous ethics complaints does nothing but undermine the ethics process in this House and undermine this great institution."
He said the complaint has not distracted him from his work.
"Absolutely not. We're accomplishing our agenda, we're fighting the good fight, and we're out there working the campaigns everywhere," he said.
Bell filed a three-part complaint.
Two allegations directly involve use of DeLay's congressional office. One accuses him of soliciting corporate contributions in return for assistance on legislation. A second allegation contends he improperly used his staff to contact U.S. aviation authorities and ask them to track down Texas Democratic legislators who had fled the state trying to thwart a DeLay-backed redistricting plan.
The third subject accuses DeLay of using his political action committees to distribute money from corporations to Texas legislative candidates, in violation of state law.