WASHINGTON – The House ethics committee's new GOP chairman has fired two senior staff lawyers, leading Democrats to charge that the dismissals are further payback for the panel's rebukes of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) last year.
The chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (search), R-Wash., had no partisan motive for the changes, his top aide said.
Meanwhile, a group that monitors congressional conduct urged Hastings to maintain a vigorous investigative agenda and allay concerns that the committee would be dormant as a result of his membership changes.
Hastings is replacing John Vargo, staff director and chief counsel, and Paul Lewis, counsel to the former chairman and spokesman for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (search).
Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2-ranking House Democrat, said Wednesday the decision "smacks of retribution because these staffers put the ethical integrity of this institution above the agenda of the Republican leadership."
Democrats and watchdog groups have kept up a drumbeat of criticism this year, saying Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., replaced three of the five GOP members of the evenly divided committee in retaliation for three findings last year that criticized DeLay, R-Texas.
Ed Cassidy, chief of staff to Hastings and the committee's new spokesman, said, "By long tradition in the House, newly appointed committee chairmen — Democrats as well as Republicans — typically replace senior committee aides in order to ensure that a new chairman and the entire committee staff can work together cooperatively, confidentially and productively.
"Anyone suggesting these decisions were made for partisan reasons is flat out wrong," Cassidy said.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a congressional watchdog organization, urged Hastings in a letter to continue to monitor a Texas investigation that led to indictments of three DeLay political associates. The committee deferred action on the matter last year.
Hastert this year elevated Hastings, who was on the committee, to chairman. Hastings replaced Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who presided over the rebukes of DeLay. Hefley's tenure was completed under a House term-limit rule, and the Republican leadership decided not to seek a waiver of the limit.
Republican Reps. Steven LaTourette of Ohio and Kenny Hulshof of Missouri also were replaced.
All three were involved in the DeLay matters, including the conclusion that he appeared to link political contributions and legislation.
The committee also rebuked DeLay for offering help for the House candidacy of a GOP lawmaker's son, in exchange for the member's vote for a Medicare drug benefit. In addition, the committee said DeLay improperly asked federal aviation authorities to track down Texas Democratic state lawmakers during a political dispute.
Two new Republican members of the committee, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, have made contributions to legal defense funds established by DeLay. He can use these funds to pay legal expenses in any future ethics investigations.