House Democratic leaders on Thursday sought removal of two recently appointed Republicans from the ethics committee, questioning whether their judgment would be influenced by contributions to Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s legal defense fund.

The committee last year deferred action on investigating any role played by DeLay, R-Texas, in a corporate campaign donation controversy in Texas that led to indictments of three of his political associates.

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas contributed $10,000 to the defense fund and Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma donated $5,000, according to an analysis by the congressional watchdog group Public Citizen.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and party whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland requested the removal in a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert. The speaker’s spokesman, Pete Jeffries, said Democrats want to “politicize the ethics committee.”

“This latest accusation comes at a particularly curious time, since the minority leader had a meeting with the speaker two nights ago and she didn’t raise it,” Jeffries said. “If this was such a big issue, one would think the minority leader would have given the speaker the courtesy to say, ‘Expect me to raise this issue.'”

Democrats and some Republicans have publicly criticized Hastert’s realignment of the committee last week. The critics called removal of the panel’s GOP chairman and two other Republicans a purge designed to stack the panel with DeLay supporters.

The evenly divided, 10-member committee admonished DeLay last year for enlisting the help of federal aviation officials in a Texas redistricting dispute; for the appearance of linking political donations and legislation, and for suggesting he would support the candidacy of a Republican lawmaker’s son in return for a vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

DeLay has not been indicted and denied wrongdoing in any Texas campaign finance irregularities. He called the probe of corporate political donations a political investigation by a Democratic prosecutor. However, if action is taken against DeLay, he could use his legal fund to aid his defense.

Pelosi and Hoyer wrote Hastert: “Having given money to help defend Mr. DeLay against these precise allegations, Mr. Smith and Mr. Cole should not now sit in judgment of him.”

“While Mr. Smith and Mr. Cole may argue that their contributions will not prejudice their decisions – and we have no reason to doubt their intent to act properly – the perception of many of their colleagues and of the public will be otherwise.”

The Democrats asked that the lawmakers be replaced with “members who will not be perceived by the public as having already made up their minds regarding the conduct of Mr. DeLay.”

© 2005 The Associated Press