WASHINGTON – The House ethics committee admonished Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) for the second time in a week for questionable conduct, sternly warning the Texas Republican to temper his behavior.
The committee late Wednesday determined DeLay created an appearance of giving donors special access on pending energy legislation and using the Federal Aviation Administration (search) to intervene in a Texas political dispute.
Last week, the same committee admonished DeLay for offering to endorse the House candidacy of a House member's son in exchange for the member's favorable vote on a Medicare prescription drug bill.
The committee's publicly issued findings constituted the panel's mildest punishment, and spared DeLay from a lengthy investigation.
But the committee noted the rare back-to-back admonishments and that in 1999 DeLay received an ethics committee warning for pressuring a lobby company to hire a Republican.
"In view of the number of instances to date in which the committee has found it necessary to comment on conduct in which you engaged, it is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions," the committee said in a letter to DeLay.
DeLay is one of the nation's most partisan political leaders and most successful money-raisers. He has long been known in the Capitol as "The Hammer."
The White House declined to criticize DeLay. "That's a congressional matter and congressman DeLay has addressed those issues head-on," presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The committee of five Democrats and five Republicans delayed action on an allegation that DeLay violated Texas campaign finance laws. A Texas grand jury investigation has so far led to indictments of three DeLay associates and eight corporations.
DeLay said he considers the complaint against him dismissed, but accepted the committee's guidance.
He called the complaint another personal attack by Democrats that fell short "not because of insufficient venom, but because of insufficient merit."
The panel told DeLay that he created an appearance of favoritism when he mingled at a 2003 golf outing with executives of Westar Energy (search) of Kansas.
The tournament at a Virginia resort came just days after the executives contributed $25,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority, a fund-raising organization associated with DeLay.
In addition, company executives donated $33,200 to six House campaigns.
The committee concluded DeLay was "in a position to significantly influence" legislation Westar sought because he is a House leader and at the time was involved in House-Senate efforts to negotiate an energy bill.
The legislation sought by Westar was inserted in the energy bill by another lawmaker, but eventually was withdrawn.
The committee made clear that DeLay did not solicit contributions from Westar in return for a favor, which would have been far more serious.
"Representative DeLay took no action with regard to Westar that would constitute an impermissible special favor," according to the report from the panel led by Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo. and senior Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.
DeLay also raised "serious concerns" by contacting the Federal Aviation Administration in 2003 to chase down a Texas Democrat's private plane. State Democratic legislators were fleeing Texas to prevent Republican state lawmakers from passing a DeLay-engineered redistricting plan.
While Democrats and government watchdog groups unleashed a stream of criticism of DeLay's conduct, the committee findings are unlikely to derail him if Republicans retain control in November.
Wednesday's admonishments stem from a a three-part complaint filed by freshman Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas. He lost his primary because of the DeLay-inspired redistricting plan.
Bell said DeLay should step down from his leadership position. "The old rule is three strikes and your out," Bell said.
The committee said it would take up DeLay's objections that the complaint by Bell contained "innuendo, speculative assertions or conclusionary statements."
DeLay, 57, was elected in 1984 to a district representing the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.
He began his ascent in Congress after Republicans captured the House in 1994 — successfully running for the No. 3 position as majority whip.
As the chief vote-counter and fund-raiser for House Republicans, he kept the party united on key votes when it possessed only a slim majority over the Democrats.
When Newt Gingrich stepped down as speaker in 1998 after a damaging ethics investigation, DeLay played a major role in raising little-known Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to the speakership. DeLay became Majority Leader in 2002 after Dick Armey, R-Texas, retired.