Hefley's closest friend rarely took his advice

During his 20-year career in the House, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) considered Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) his closest friend and former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) his biggest antagonist.

During his 20-year career in the House, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) considered Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) his closest friend and former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) his biggest antagonist.

That put him in the unusual position for several years of being close to the highest-ranking House Republican and at odds with his deputy.

Hefley’s friendship with Hastert was born from entering Congress in the same freshman class and serving together over two decades. His strained relationship with DeLay also goes back years. They even almost got into a fistfight years ago.

“We did not get along very well for a long, long time,” said Hefley of DeLay. “I can tell you we almost got into a fight in the well of the House over a disagreement. … We had a meeting in the Speaker’s office and he came away with one concept of what happened and I had another.”

But he said his personal feelings never got in the way of how he treated DeLay while chairman of the House ethics committee.

“That made me bend over backwards to make sure I was being fair to Tom when he came before the committee,” Hefley said during a wide-ranging interview the day before the 109th Congress adjourned. “Because you couldn’t be partisan in [the committee] or hold over old grudges, or the system breaks down.”

His relationships with Hastert and DeLay put Hefley at the center of the leadership debate over how to reform the ethics committee after the panel admonished DeLay for ethical transgressions, a debate that Hefley lost and he believes helped Democrats take over the House.

Hefley served for eight years on the Standards of Official Conduct Committee, as the panel is formally known, and is best known for his stint as chairman, during which he presided over a high-profile probe of DeLay, the then-House majority leader. He also oversaw an investigation of bribery allegations connected to the 2003 Medicare act and the expulsion of former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio).

The Medicare and DeLay investigations resulted in three admonishments of DeLay, public rebukes that Hefley acknowledged ultimately led to DeLay’s downfall. But the Colorado lawmaker said that DeLay could have saved his career if he merely acknowledged responsibility for his actions.

“It wasn’t like we gave a death sentence to Tom DeLay,” he said. “We admonished him on three things.”

“If he had said, ‘I screwed up, I’m sorry,’” Hefley said, DeLay could have spared himself serious political damage. But instead of apologizing, DeLay fought fiercely against implications that he had acted improperly.

The period during and immediately after the ethics investigations of DeLay was a tough one for Hefley, as DeLay’s allies threatened him and other colleagues shunned him.

“During that time there was a very threatening atmosphere, and I don’t want to mention any names or specific threats, but it was very threatening,” he said. “Some people were afraid to sit with me on the House floor because they didn’t want DeLay to see them doing that. He wasn’t called ‘the Hammer’ for nothing.”

Hefley and DeLay crossed swords earlier, at the end of 2002, over who would become the next chairman of the House Resources Committee. Hefley did not want the post for himself because it would have meant giving up his subcommittee chairmanship on the Armed Services Committee, his top priority. But he wanted to make sure Republican leaders influenced by DeLay would not pass over qualified members in line for the gavel. Specifically, Hefley testified before the Republican Steering Committee, which makes decisions on chairmanships, to ask that Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) be given the top slot. 

“I had an inclination that DeLay wanted to bounce [Rep. Richard] Pombo (R-Calif.) above everybody else and Pombo was about number nine [in seniority on the panel],” he said. “I said there’s no excuse to jump over these nine people. Unless there’s an overwhelming reason not to, you ought to go down the seniority list.”

But Pombo, who was close to DeLay and raised a lot of money for Republican candidates, won the gavel.

“I think Tom Delay wanted to put his people, his loyalists in every spot,” said Hefley.

Hefley said it was another instance of when his friend Hastert opted for DeLay’s advice over his own, adding the decision created ill will in the caucus.

Hefley believes that voter concern about ethics was an important factor to Republicans losing control of the chamber. The “Culture of Corruption” slogan that Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) used repeatedly over the last two years to tarnish Republicans was made possible by a series of events sparked by DeLay, said Hefley.

“I think it started with the reapportionment of Texas in the middle of a term,” said Hefley, referring to the successful effort spearheaded by DeLay four years ago to redraw the congressional district lines in Texas. The reshuffling of voter populations resulted in Democrats losing six Texas seats in 2004.

“We got some extra seats out of that, but there was a sense of unfairness, then DeLay gets indicted, then we change the rules arbitrarily in order to protect DeLay. I think that was the start of it,” said Hefley, alluding to Texas district attorney Ronnie Earle’s indictment of DeLay on money laundering and conspiracy charges related to the redistricting effort.

He said DeLay’s actions, combined with the convictions of former Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), led voters to think that all lawmakers are corrupt.

Hefley believes that view was strengthened when Republican leaders unilaterally changed the chamber’s ethics rules with the partisan passage of the rules package for the 109th Congress.

Under the GOP-drafted changes, ethics complaints would be automatically dismissed after 45 days unless the committee voted for an investigation, the same counsel could represent multiple targets of an ethics probe and lawmakers facing charges could demand adjudicatory hearings before the completion of an investigation. Hefley and Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), then the ranking Democrat on ethics, believed the changes would weaken the committee.

Hefley said that Republican leaders did not bother to consult with any members of the committee before drafting the rules changes. He heard about the reforms shortly before the House was to vote on them as he was driving back to Washington from a short vacation in South Carolina. Hefley immediately called his friend Hastert from the car to persuade him the move would be a mistake, but Hastert didn’t follow the advice.

Hastert also declined Hefley’s advice that he remain as ethics chairman into the 109th Congress to avoid the appearance that he had been removed because of the committee’s findings against DeLay. Republican leaders also removed Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) and Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) from the panel.

“I said, because of the DeLay thing, if you don’t reappoint me to the committee you’ll make a martyr out of me, which is exactly what happened,” Hefley recounted. “I said it would be a lot better to reappoint me and that I would go to March and then quietly resign because I’m too tied up with defense [issues].

“To me that made sense, but that isn’t the way it worked,” Hefley added. “I think DeLay was probably working to make darn sure that Hefley was out of there.”

Hefley said he has at times debated with himself how much influence DeLay had over Hastert.

“I’ve been told by a number of Democrats that on the Democratic side of the aisle they thought DeLay was running the show,” he said. “I said I don’t know, I thought Hastert was his own man. But clearly during the whole debacle of the rules changes and the ethics purge, all that kind of thing, on the evolution of Pombo to the chairmanship, those were DeLay deals.”

The congressman is not fond of his replacement, Rep.-elect Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). Hefley opted not to endorse Lamborn, and revealed he did not vote for him on Nov. 7. Hefley declined to say how he voted, or if he had voted for Jay Fawcett, Lamborn’s Democratic challenger.

Hefley is unclear on what he’ll do next, saying he may stay in Washington or return to Colorado.