WASHINGTON – Leaders of the House ethics committee broke through a months-long stalemate over staffing Thursday, making it possible to investigate Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) and conduct other business.
The evenly divided committee, which investigates member misconduct, has been shut down all year by partisan bickering.
Chairman Doc Hastings (search), R-Wash., and senior Democrat Alan Mollohan (search) of West Virginia negotiated the agreement. The key part of the deal would allow personal staff aides to the leaders to be their liaisons to t — but have no managerial responsibilities.
For months, the two leaders had argued over the role of Hastings' key aide, his congressional chief of staff Ed Cassidy.
Under the agreement, the two aides could not even convey policy directives to the professional staff without the approval of the two leaders.
"We are pleased to resolve this issue and are committed to standing up the committee, with a full complement of professional nonpartisan staff as soon as possible," said a joint statement by the two leaders.
"It is our intent to establish a committee and process that reflect credibly on the House, its members and the public they serve."
DeLay has asked the committee to review his travel expenses that were paid for by private organizations. He is seeking to clear his name against allegations that a lobbyist or the lobbyist's clients paid for some of his travel expenses.
News organizations have uncovered documents showing payments connected to Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who is under federal investigation for possibly bilking his Indian tribe clients.
DeLay, R-Texas, has said he believed the private organizations sponsoring his trips paid the bills, not the lobbyist. House rules bar lobbyists from paying for members' travel.
The committee, if it grants DeLay's request for a review, could conduct a preliminary inquiry into his travel. After the review, the committee would have to decide whether to name an investigative subcommittee to conduct a full-scale investigation.
While Democratic leaders have called for an investigation of DeLay, the GOP leader has accused Democrats of trying to stall ethics committee operations to ensure an investigation lasts into 2006 — an election year.
DeLay was admonished on three separate issues last year by the committee, formally called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
With the agreement, the committee can now take advantage of extra funds it was allotted this year to hire additional investigative staff, including a chief counsel who also would serve as staff director.
The chief counsel-staff director would supervise the investigative staff and be directly accountable to the two committee leaders.
The chief counsel would be appointed by a majority vote of the full committee. The leaders pledged to purchase advertisements and take other steps to seek and screen candidates for the position.