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Inside Politics

Hastert: Democrats protecting their own

Pelosi calls proposed ethics committee compromise a 'sham'

From Ted Barrett and John Mercurio
CNN Washington Bureau

Federal Election Commission
Tom DeLay
Dennis Hastert
Nancy Pelosi

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democrats in the House are blocking the ethics committee from organizing so they can protect several fellow party members from ethics investigations, Speaker Dennis Hastert said Wednesday.

"We know there are four or five cases out there dealing with top-level Democrats," Hastert told the conservative Sean Hannity radio program.

"There's a reason that they don't want to go to the ethics process and as long as they can keep someone dangling out there like they have with Tom DeLay, they take great glee in that," the Illinois Republican said.

His comment came the same day Democrats rejected a compromise offer from the Republican chairman of the House ethics committee that would have opened an investigation into ethics charges against Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas in return for the Democrats agreeing to formally organize the committee. (Related story)

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California representative, said Thursday the offer from Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington was a "sham" because Republicans had already "gutted the rules" of the ethics panel.

"The fact is that no matter whatever Mr. DeLay's problems are, they are almost minor compared to the abuse of power of the Republicans in terms of the ethics process that is a bigger issue than Mr. DeLay," Pelosi said at a news conference.

"It is about the integrity of the House, of upholding a high ethical standard."

Committee deadlock

The committee is deadlocked over Republican-written changes to rules for investigating lawmakers passed in January without Democratic support.

Democrats claim the revisions were aimed at preventing an investigation from determining whether DeLay has violated House rules.

After the 10-member committee admonished DeLay three times in 2004 and talk of a possible probe by the committee grew, Republican leadership in the House changed a central rule.

The committee can now launch an investigation only if a majority of members support the idea.

Since the panel is evenly divided between the parties, at least one Republican member would have to agree to investigate DeLay.

In response to the changes, Democratic members have refused to let the committee meet.

Democratic targets?

Three sources close to House GOP leaders said the Democrats being targeted include Pelosi, of California, Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania.

Pelosi was fined by the Federal Election Commission in November 2002 for improperly operating two political action committees.

The commission told Pelosi, then minority whip, to close one of her two PACs, called TEAM Majority, saying she was skirting federal fund-raising limits by operating two PACs.

The commission imposed a $21,000 fine on Pelosi, who continued to run her other fund-raising committee, known as PAC To the Future.

"At each step, we did everything they told us to do," Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. "If Republicans are arguing that anyone who receives an FEC fine can be hit with an ethics charge, well, I'd have to check but I think there are 12 or 13 of their members have received FEC fines in the past Congress."

Eavesdropping incident

McDermott has been the subject of a long-running court case triggered by a 1998 eavesdropping incident involving Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.

McDermott's chief of staff, Jan Shinpoch, said the congressman was unfazed by the Republicans' threats and wants the committee to organize under the old rules.

"If McDermott feared the ethics committee, he would favor the Republican rules, not the old bipartisan, Democratic rules," Shinpoch said. "Those [Republican]rules that protect DeLay also protect McDermott."

The Washington Times reported House documents show a 2001 trip Tubbs Jones took to Puerto Rico was improperly paid for by lobbyists. A spokeswomen for Tubbs Jones denied the charge and blamed the documentation on "human error."

A House Democratic leadership aide rejected Hastert's charge that the Democrats are protecting their own as "completely absurd."

"The reason Democrats have an issue with the ethics committee is the way Republicans abused power to create the [ethics] rules we're dealing with now," the aide said.

Controversial ties

Republicans say charges against Kanjorski date to 1998, when the 11-term congressman helped two Pennsylvania-based companies owned and run by his four nephews and daughter by earmarking more than $9 million in federal contracts and grants for the two firms.

Kanjorski insisted he has not profited personally from those deals. The companies, Cornerstone Technologies and Pennsylvania Micronics, research water-jet technology.

Kanjorski's controversial ties to the companies nearly resulted in House GOP leaders filing ethics charges against him in 2002.

Hastert quashed the effort when Democrats threatened to file ethics charges of their own against Republicans. At the time, the speaker's move preserved a cease-fire between the two parties on ethics charges.

"It's completely absurd," one House Democratic leadership aide said of Hastert's effort to shift the ethics spotlight onto Democrats. "You don't think that if they had something [on House Democrats] they'd have filed it already?"

Also Thursday, the ethics committee canceled a 4 p.m. meeting Hastings had hoped to use to formalize his compromise offer.

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