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Ethics complaint filed against DeLay

Democrat who lost primary in redrawn district expects retaliation

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

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Ethics charges filed against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Tom DeLay

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A freshman Democrat -- already defeated for re-election -- filed an ethics complaint Tuesday against House Republican leader Tom DeLay.

"It's my opinion Mr. DeLay is the most corrupt politician in America today," Rep. Chris Bell of Texas said after filing the complaint, which stretches to 187 pages, including copies of tax forms, newspaper articles and other supporting material.

Bell's filing ended a seven-year informal ethics truce between the parties, in place since ethics charges destroyed the careers of two sitting speakers -- Democrat Jim Wright and Republican Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich filed ethics charges against Wright in 1987, alleging financial improprieties over a book deal. An embattled Wright resigned two years later.

Gingrich was later reprimanded for using tax-exempt donations to fund his political action committee and fined $300,000. Gingrich resigned in 1998 after his party lost House seats they expected to win.

Democratic leaders deny they orchestrated Bell's actions, though a leadership aide acknowledged that Bell told top leaders of his thinking "several months ago" and they did not discourage him from moving forward.

But DeLay blamed the Democratic leaders for "character assassination" and said they want "to destroy people personally in order to gain power."

"I don't like the politics of personal destruction," DeLay said at a news briefing.

The complaint is three-pronged. It accuses DeLay of wrongdoing in his dealings with Westar Energy Corp., which contributed money to Republicans, the complaint alleges, in the hopes of getting "a seat at the table" on pending legislation. It also accuses DeLay of illegally funneling corporate contributions to candidates for state offices in Texas. Finally, it alleges DeLay used his influence to get the Federal Aviation Administration to help track a plane carrying Texas Democratic legislators as they fled the state to derail a vote on redistricting.

"The credibility of this great institution is under attack," Bell said, explaining why he filed the complaint. "This attack on Congress comes in the form of serious criminal acts including bribery, extortion, fraud, money laundering and the abuse of power."

DeLay denied the charges.

"There's no substance to any of them," DeLay said. "I have ultimate confidence in the ethics committee in doing the right thing."

DeLay is up for re-election in November.

Democrats defended Bell's decision to file the complaint but said they realize it might rekindle the ethics war.

"Whether it's Chris Bell or Nancy Pelosi who files the complaint, they're coming after us," a top House Democratic leadership aide said.

Bell, whose district includes communities south and east of Houston, said he expects Republicans to retaliate against him personally.

"I do not underestimate the dangers and political risks involved in asking for an investigation of the very powerful majority leader. I expect the full wrath of Mr. DeLay's attack machine," Bell said.

DeLay said he would discourage Republicans from "playing politics with the ethics committee" but said if someone has a "legitimate complaint" they should take it to the committee.

DeLay accused Bell of filing the complaint because he is "bitter" about his primary loss in a congressional district that was redrawn with DeLay's help.

The first step for the ethics committee -- formally known as the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee -- is an initial investigation. After that, the committee, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, must vote on whether to move to a formal investigation.

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