Press Item ● Congress
For Immediate Release: 
February 2, 2004
Contact Info: 
Carl Hulse

The New York Times

A leading House Democrat has called on Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to initiate an ethics investigation into accusations of bribery during last November's vote on the new Medicare drug plan, warning that Democrats will conduct their own inquiry if the House leader does not act.

In a Jan. 20 letter to the speaker, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip, said an investigation by the House ethics committee was needed to protect the reputation of the House after Representative Nick Smith, Republican of Michigan, said groups and lawmakers had offered support for his son's Congressional campaign if Mr. Smith backed the measure, which passed 220 to 215.

''Until such time as the committee renders its own conclusions on the matter, the House will operate under a cloud of public suspicion,'' Mr. Hoyer wrote in his five-page letter.

Mr. Hoyer said a failure by Mr. Hastert to request an inquiry would leave ''no alternative but for individual members'' to seek one, a move that would shatter an unofficial truce the parties have observed in recent years after ethics complaints were wielded as political weapons in the 1990's.

Republican officials said the Hoyer appeal smacked of politics and suggested Democrats were using the ethics process to try to score election-year points in their effort to regain the House majority. A spokesman for Mr. Hastert, Republican of Illinois, said the speaker did not intend to ask for an investigation, saying the decision should be left to the ethics panel, led by Representative Joel Hefley, Republican of Colorado.

''If Mr. Hefley and the committee think this is an important allegation, they will take a look at it, no doubt,'' said John Feehery of the speaker's office. He added that it was Mr. Hastert's hope that the ethics process ''remains depoliticized.''

Mr. Hefley has said he does not intend to pursue the Smith allegation because no lawmaker has filed a formal request for an investigation. Republicans have called the charges surrounding Mr. Smith overblown.

But Mr. Hoyer, in an interview, said the accusations first made public by Mr. Smith himself were serious and credible and transcended any ''understanding'' the two parties shared on House ethics matters. Mr. Hoyer said that he agreed with the view that the ethics process should not be tainted by politics but that the House could not abandon its responsibility to police itself.

''Whether you are a lawyer, an accountant or a corporation, we have found that the failure of institutions to regulate themselves, to address problems internally, inevitably results in a loss of respect and of trust and in some cases brings the intervention of a third party,'' he said.

Mr. Hoyer's letter is the latest example of growing unrest with what Democrats see as heavy-handed Republican operation of the House and a failure to rein in questionable behavior by some members. House Democrats have said they intend to make Republican stewardship an issue in this year's campaigns.

The Smith incident arose from the difficulty the Republican leadership had in winning approval of the Medicare plan in the early morning of Nov. 22, when Mr. Hastert kept the usual 15-minute voting period open for almost three hours until he and his lieutenants could round up a majority. Mr. Smith, a conservative opposed to the drug coverage plan because of its costs, was approached by lawmakers, including Mr. Hastert, who tried to persuade him to switch. But he refused.

In a column on his House Web site after the vote, Mr. Smith said he had been offered ''extensive'' campaign support and endorsements for his son, Brad, who is running to succeed him, as well as threats of retribution against his son if he did not back the bill. In a radio interview, Mr. Smith put the figure for campaign aid at $100,000. After an uproar over his comments, Mr. Smith backtracked and said the offers of support were general and did not include specific amounts. He did not name the people he said had pressured him.

The Justice Department has said it would look into the matter. But Mr. Hoyer noted in his letter that its jurisdiction could be limited by Congressional speech and debate protections in the Constitution, while the House itself has no such restrictions.

Were a Democratic lawmaker to file a complaint, it could lead to the kind of bitterness that marked the years when Republicans and Democrats traded ethics charges.

Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat, resigned from the House in 1989 over accusations he accepted improper gifts and book royalties. Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, was fined $300,000 in 1997 over a politically tinged college course he taught.

Since then, House members have changed the ethics process to make it harder for outsiders to file complaints, and lawmakers themselves have shied away from charges.