Another conflict of interest in DeLay scandal

A House ethics committee member helped raise money for a Texas political committee associated with Majority Leader Tom DeLay, presenting a possible conflict if the congressional panel investigates DeLay’s role in a fund-raising controversy.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, was listed as a special guest and speaker in 2002 for Texans for a Republican Majority. While investigating DeLay’s conduct last year, the House committee deferred – but did not dismiss – a complaint that DeLay, R-Texas, used the same political committee to solicit corporate contributions in violation of state law.

“Your support today will go directly to help Republican candidates in Texas successfully run and win their campaigns,” according to one invitation from the political committee for a Sept. 23, 2002, breakfast reception with Smith and Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas. Suggested donations ranged from $25 to $10,000.

Smith said in an interview that neither he nor any other House ethics committee member would “let personal friendship get in the way of the integrity of the House.”

Smith would not say whether he would remove himself from consideration of the matter.

Every member of the committee “is obligated to protect the integrity of the House,” he said.

Smith’s role in the fund raising is the latest controversy involving the ethics committee and DeLay. The Republican-controlled House this year changed the rules for ethics probes, contending greater fairness was needed toward members under investigation.

Democrats are trying to overturn those changes, arguing they were designed to block any new investigations of DeLay by requiring at least one Republican vote to proceed.

DeLay received a boost from President Bush, who told a news conference Wednesday: “I have confidence in Tom DeLay’s leadership and I have confidence in Tom DeLay. And we’ve worked closely with Tom DeLay and the leaders in the House to get a lot done during the last four years, and I’m looking forward to working with him to get a lot done in the next four years.”

In an ethics committee that has five members from each party, Democrats have caused a 5-5 partisan split over adopting the new rules, preventing the committee from conducting any business.

Despite the stalemate, committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., on Wednesday proposed a two-year panel budget of $4.7 million, a $1.7 million increase.

The extra money would expand ethics training for lawmakers and their staffs. It would pay for additional investigators to gather facts more quickly and provide timely disposition of cases.

Hastings, in a reference to the DeLay controversy and rules stalemate, told the Committee on House Administration that “recent events have underscored the importance of providing the highest-quality ethics education, training, advice and information to both members and staff.”

The committee admonished DeLay last year for appearing to link legislation to political donations, for offering to support the House candidacy of a lawmaker’s son in return for a vote, and for asking federal aviation officials to help track down Texas Democratic lawmakers who fled their capital during a redistricting dispute.

Smith was not a member of the committee last year when the panel deferred action on the fund-raising allegations against DeLay, who has denied any wrongdoing.

The ethics committee, formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, said it didn’t want to interfere with a Travis County, Texas, grand jury investigating fund raising by Texans for a Republican Majority, which also is TRMPAC. DeLay has called the investigation political, noting that a Democratic prosecutor is in charge.

DeLay was a founder of TRMPAC, serves on its advisory board and has helped with its fund raising. Three of DeLay’s political associates have been indicted in the criminal investigation and a civil trial related to the fund raising is under way in Austin.

The civil suit was filed by Democrats who contend that TRMPAC and others raised illegal corporate donations.

Smith, a former House ethics committee chairman, is one of two Republicans on the ethics committee who contributed to legal defense funds established by DeLay. The majority leader can use those funds to pay legal expenses in any future ethics investigation.

Smith said he could not recall whether he attended the TRMPAC event on Sept. 23, 2002, in San Antonio.

In the past, DeLay said he had little to do with TRMPAC’s day-to-day activities. Some documents in the civil case suggested he may have been actively involved in gathering corporate donations.

Under Texas law, political committees can use corporate contributions for administrative expenses but not to support state candidates.


Associated Press writers David Espo and Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Associated Press