By Patrick OConnor - 08/17/05 12:00 AM EDT
The indictment last week of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and an unrelated ruling against one of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) fundraising arms have brought ethical questions back into focus as members enjoy the last three weeks of August recess.
When Congress returns, House Republicans are bracing themselves for another round of negative stories now that Florida authorities have indicted Abramoff.
But Republican stalwarts continue to demonstrate their support for DeLay and his associates, despite their legal troubles. Republicans have scheduled a golf tournament next Wednesday to benefit a legal defense fund set up for DeLay fundraisers Jim Ellis and John Colyandro, both of whom have been indicted on money-laundering charges.
The golf event and luncheon are scheduled for Aug. 24 at the Springfield Golf and Country Club in Springfield, Va. Mark Valente III, a Washington-based lobbyist, helped organize the event and sent out the invitations.
During his tenure in Washington, Ellis has engendered strong loyalty as a mentor to lobbyists and congressional staff members throughout the city.
“I think the world of him,” Valente said. “He’s a friend who I think is getting a raw deal.”
The invitation for next week’s event was sent with a one-page description of the fund as well as a letter from Donald McGahn, general counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee, stating that it was technically correct for the fund to accept donations from political action committees.
Thirteen House members had contributed $41,000 to Ellis’s defense fund as of the latest filing period, including $10,000 by Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and $5,000 by Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), according to politicalmoneyline.com.
The fund is a private, non-charitable trust, so it is otherwise not required to disclose contributions or expenditures.
Partisan wrangling over ethics committee rules and a subsequent staffing conflict kept the House ethics committee inactive — and in the news — for much of this year. That standoff created a logjam of ethics questions involving members from both parties.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), and its ranking Democrat, Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), resolved the staffing issue before the August recess, but it remains to be seen whether either party will fire the first shot in a potentially bruising ethics war.
Last Friday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee updated its House of Scandal website to include the Abramoff indictment, but thus far no House member — Democrat or Republican — has introduced an actual ethics complaint.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has written complaints against Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) but so far has been frustrated by Democratic inaction.
“I think it’s outrageous they won’t file an ethics complaint,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of CREW, which last year helped write the complaint against DeLay that was introduced by retiring Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) and resulted in three admonishments of the majority leader.
“The Democrats are totally spineless,” Sloan said.
Sloan is also frustrated that Pelosi did not support changing committee rules to allow outside groups to file a complaint.
“If there is one rules change, it should be that outside groups can file an ethics complaint,” Sloan said. “It’s just an old boys club. Members are never going to file a complaint against each other.”
However the politics play out, law enforcement officials on a state and local level are moving forward with their cases against Abramoff, Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who has been closely tied to a defense contractor whose company received millions in federal contracts, and DeLay’s fundraising team during the contentious 2002 Texas Statehouse race.
A Texas judge last week refused appeals by the lawyers of Colyandro and Ellis, two principals in Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC), the fund established by DeLay in 2001 to help the GOP win control of the Texas statehouse.
Ellis and Colyandro, the former PAC director, face money-laundering charges under allegations that $190,000 in corporate donations were given to the Republican National Committee and then subsequently contributed to seven Republican Statehouse candidates.
Corporate donations to political candidates for state office are illegal under Texas law.
Lawyers for Colyandro and Ellis had argued that the charges were based on unconstitutionally vague law and that the indictments were improperly worded. They have also argued that checks — a focus of the investigation — were not included in the original law.
In an unrelated investigation, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) released an audit last week citing numerous reporting errors by Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), DeLay’s leadership fund run by Ellis, in 2001 and 2002.
In May, a Texas judge also ruled that TRMPAC violated state election law by failing to report $684,507 in corporate donations. That case is separate from the criminal charges facing Ellis and Colyandro.