It’s been seven years since the U.S. House of Representatives has seen such a serious, public ethical charge as the one recently filed against Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Among the allegations, DeLay is accused of taking money for political action and using federal agencies for political gain — all of which he has denied.
Now, Rep. Kenny Hulshof, a Republican from Missouri’s 9th District, will be among the 10 House members to decide what happens next. Hulshof sits on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, or the ethics committee, which investigates all possible ethics violations by House members. The committee is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans.
Elected in 1996, Hulshof came to office at about the time the last formal ethics complaint was filed in the House. Then, he remembers, the ethical review process had become bogged down in partisan mudslinging. Both parties agreed changes were needed, and they passed rules that forbade outside groups from filing ethical complaints against members.
Since then, no House member outside the ethics committee had initiated a formal complaint. Until last week.
Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, filed a complaint alleging that DeLay illegally solicited financial contributions in exchange for political action, laundered illegal corporate contributions that were distributed to Texas Republicans, and improperly used federal agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, for political advantage. DeLay denied the allegations.
Bell lost his bid for re-election in March after Texas districts were redrawn in January. The second part of his complaint alleges that DeLay laundered corporate money to ensure Republican control of the Texas Legislature and gerrymander redistricting for Republican advantage.
Many outside the House are saying Bell has broken a long-standing “truce” among members not to file ethics complaints against each other. But that oversimplifies the issue, Hulshof said, as the ethics committee has been quietly looking into informal complaints all along. These matters were kept private unless deemed serious enough to warrant a full investigation, he said.
Strict confidentiality rules exist to protect the reputations of House members who are not found in violation, Hulshof said. The public will typically learn of an ethics case at two points — once the committee decides to investigate, and once the investigation reaches conclusion.
Although the committee still must decide whether the complaint warrants investigation, the matter has been made public because it was brought by someone outside the committee.
For minor violations, the committee might issue a private letter of reproval, but for major infractions it can recommend expulsion from the House, Hulshof said.
“They’ve done in speakers in the past, including Jim Wright,” said John Petrocik, chairman of MU’s political science department. “They can embarrass people. They can sanction people.”
Wright, a Democrat, resigned in 1989 after an ethics committee investigation.