By John Bresnahan
A top House Democrat is urging the ethics committee to investigate whether Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) was forced out as the panel’s chairman in retaliation for the committee’s decision to admonish Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on two different occasions during the 108th Congress.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday that the ethics committee should look into whether Hefley was threatened, if it has not done so already, and whether Hefley’s removal from the chairmanship of the panel last week was a response to the committee’s rulings during its investigation of allegations made by former Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), as well as an ethics complaint filed against DeLay by former Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas).
“I don’t know whether any action has been taken, but I will tell you this, if it hasn’t been taken, it should have been taken,” said Hoyer in his weekly press conference.
“If somebody has threatened a member of the ethics committee, which Hefley says he was threatened — assuming that quote is accurate, and Hefley hasn’t told me personally. But I have no knowledge of any action that has been taken beyond, of course, the very public action that he was fired, which is pretty dramatic and sends a message to every member of the ethics committee on the Republican side, you know, we’re not too interested in your being very careful in your deliberations and [being] action oriented.”
Hoyer also questioned the “objectivity” of two Members recently appointed to the ethics committee, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), both of whom have given to DeLay’s legal fund. While Hoyer did not mention the two GOP lawmakers by name, he implied that it would be difficult for either man to be neutral in a case involving DeLay.
“Mr. Hefley has been removed and individuals put in place ... who made substantial contributions to the DeLay defense fund, which it seems to me compromises their objectivity,” Hoyer added. “I do not call into question the character or integrity of either one of them, but clearly that calls into question their objectivity.” Smith and Cole both gave $5,000 to DeLay’s defense fund.
Smith did not respond to Hoyer’s comments, although Cole did.
“I have great respect for Mr. Hoyer. I hope as he gets to know me better, he will become more comfortable with my objectivity and my ability to discharge my duties impartially and dispassionately," Cole said in a statement released by his office.
At issue is whether Hefley was actually threatened and, because the Colorado Republican was later replaced as ethics chairman, whether that decision by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was a violation of House rules.
In an Oct. 13 article in The Hill newspaper, Hefley said, “I’ve been attacked; I’ve been threatened” by some of his GOP colleagues, although he told other reporters no threats came from his own leadership.
Hefley later backed away from the comments. According to The Associated Press, on Oct. 14, Hefley told a “House source” he “did not recall” using the word threatened.
Democratic sources, however, said Hefley did confirm privately to some Democrats that he had been threatened with having the ethics gavel taken away from him following the committee’s decisions in the two probes.
The ethics committee, in unanimous decisions supported by all 10 lawmakers, admonished DeLay in both cases. DeLay and other GOP lawmakers bitterly objected to the rulings, saying the ethics committee essentially invented new ethical standards to punish the Texan, while Democrats praised the action as a sign of the blatant corruption within the House Republican leadership after 10 years in power.
Hefley’s office declined to comment on Hoyer’s statement.Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), ranking member on the ethics committee, also declined to comment on any discussions he might have had with Hefley.
Democrats are trying to keep the ethics controversy alive because it keeps the Republicans on the defensive politically and because they do believe that Hefley was first threatened by some of his Republican colleagues and then pushed out of the ethics post, due to his handling of the DeLay ethics cases. To Democrats, this is a serious breach of acceptable behavior by the GOP leadership as it relates to the ethics committee, and one that cannot go unchallenged.
“I raised the issue because I was concerned about it — if people are making threats,” Hoyer said following his press conference.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to raise the Hefley issue personally with Hastert this week, either through a letter or a one-on-one conversation with the Speaker, according to Democratic sources.
In mid-October, Pelosi urged Hastert to investigate the allegations of threats being made to Hefley.
Republicans bristled at Hoyer’s statement on Tuesday, seeing it as a personal attack on Hastert’s character and integrity.
Pete Jeffries, Hastert’s communications director, dismissed Hoyer’s comments as a political ploy by the Democrats to try to embarrass Hastert.
“The Minority Leader already called for a similar investigation last fall,” Jeffries said. “At that time, as chairman of the [ethics] committee, Mr. Hefley had all the authority as the chairman of the committee to begin an investigation, and he chose not to.”
Jeffries added: “It sounds like the Democrats are just trying to rewind the tape and play it over and over again. There’s nothing new here.”