WASHINGTON – House ethics committee leaders say the complaint that led to a rebuke of Republican leader Tom DeLay (search) in October was filled with exaggerations. They warned lawmakers of possible discipline if it happens again.
The complaint against DeLay by Rep. Chris Bell (search), D-Texas, violated a committee rule barring use of "innuendo, speculative assertions or conclusory statements," ethics Chairman Joel Hefley and senior Democrat Alan Mollohan wrote Bell.
Hefley, of Colorado, and Mollohan, of West Virginia, also used the four-page letter to place all House members on notice that future use of exaggerations and innuendoes could result in dismissal of the complaint in addition to disciplinary action.
The letter to Bell was not a disciplinary action.
Bell lost in a primary earlier this year because of a redistricting plan engineered by DeLay, a fellow Texan.
A freshman, Bell said he has "grave concerns that this is going to intimidate other members from coming forward to file meritorious complaints in the future. We need to work to open the ethics process up, not clamp it down. This is further evidence that the ethics process in the House is broken and needs to be fixed."
The committee rejected Bell's view in a statement released Friday. It said the letter to Bell was "not intended to inhibit" members from filing ethics complaints and it should not have that effect.
"Instead, the effect of this action should be to prompt any member who is considering filing a complaint to review its contents carefully and to ensure that the complaint does not contain any of the objectionable elements that are identified here," the statement said.
The committee letter was delivered to Bell's office Thursday.
Bell's complaint was not dismissed, the letter said, because it contained allegations against DeLay that warranted consideration; and because the committee had not previously rejected any complaint for violations of the rule against innuendo and speculation.
The committee concluded in October that DeLay appeared to link political donations to a legislative favor and improperly persuaded federal aviation authorities to intervene in a Texas political dispute.
Hefley and Mollohan wrote Bell, "Indeed, it appears there is no purpose for including excessive or inflammatory language or exaggerated charges in a complaint except in an attempt to attract publicity and hence, a political advantage."
DeLay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty said the letter "demonstrates the contempt and reckless disregard Chris Bell has shown for the Ethics Committee and its members by knowingly violating the rules of the House to advance his and his party leadership's political agenda of personal destruction."
The letter said the most serious exaggeration was Bell's contention that DeLay violated a bribery law "by soliciting campaign contributions" from a Kansas corporation, Westar Energy, in return for legislative assistance on an energy bill.
"There can hardly be a more serious charge against a public official than that he or she solicited a bribe," the committee letter said. It added that DeLay's actions "did not come even close to supporting this extremely serious claim."
The committee found in October that DeLay "created an appearance" of favoritism when he mingled at a 2003 golf outing with Westar executives just days after they contributed to a political organization associated with DeLay.
Bell's complaint also asserted:
—The majority leader "engaged in a concerted and relentless effort to use the official resources of office" for "blatantly partisan political activities."
The Hefley-Mollohan letter said this broad allegation was not supported by the facts.
—DeLay dispensed special favors to Westar.
The committee said the Bell complaint cited no action taken by DeLay for Westar. The committee findings in the DeLay case did say that Westar was seeking help with legislation at the time of the golf outing.
—DeLay was solely responsible for federal aviation authorities tracking down an airplane in an effort to locate Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state. The legislators left Texas in an effort to prevent state Republican legislators from passing DeLay's redistricting plan.
The letter said it was a misstatement to attribute actions of federal officials solely to DeLay, when the Texas Department of Public Safety also contacted federal aviation authorities.
—DeLay contacted the FBI in the effort to locate the Texas lawmakers.
The letter said there is no indication that DeLay called the FBI.
In another development, the committee decided to take no action against Rep. Karen McCarthy, D-Mo., after finding that she misused campaign funds for a trip to the Grammy Awards and refused to repay the money.
"I'm pleased the committee recommended no action, as I know I did nothing wrong," McCarthy said in a statement.
McCarthy announced her retirement last year following allegations, first reported by The Associated Press, that she improperly used her campaign and people on her House staff for personal benefit