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May 3, 2005
House Ethics Violations: Not Just For GOP Any More

The attempt to ensnare House Majority Whip Tom DeLay in ethics violations may be backfiring on House Democrats, whose own ethical closets have a skeleton or two making an appearance. Two Democratic Congressmen have accepted travel money from the same lobbyist that involved one of DeLay's aides, and now Democratic outrage has given way to a series of rationalizations:

At least two aides to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and two Democratic congressmen received travel expenses initially paid by lobbyist Jack Abramoff on his credit card or by his firm, internal records of the lobbying firm show.

Longtime House ethics rules that applied to the 1996 and 1997 trips to the Northern Mariana Islands have strictly prohibited lawmakers and their staffs from accepting any congressional trips from lobbyists or their firms.

DeLay's office and one of the lawmakers, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said they had no knowledge that Abramoff or his firm paid the expenses. The office of Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., did not return several calls seeking comment.

Abramoff, whose lobbying is under criminal investigation, pressed his clients, the Northern Marianas government, to reimburse him for the travel because of concerns the payments might draw scrutiny from the House committee that investigates lawmakers' conduct, the documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

While the Abramoff violations involve only two of DeLay's aides, they directly implicate Clyburn and Thompson, who accepted over five thousand dollars in travel expenses each for the trip. The delegation traveled to the Marianas with Abramoff eight years ago, and the lobbyist still has not been reimbursed for the money he laid out for airfare and hotel expenses. That makes everyone who accepted money guilty of ethics violations -- which, curiously enough, does not appear to include DeLay personally.

Now that Democrats have opened this Pandora's Box, they want to do their best to close it. Clyburn never heard of his benefactor, or so it seems:

The records state Preston Gates [Abramoff's lobbying firm] paid hotel and airfare for Thompson and Clyburn for travel to the island in January 1997. The two lawmakers filed reports to Congress saying a private, nonprofit group, not Abramoff's firm, paid the travel.

Clyburn said in an interview he had never heard of Abramoff at the time, and provided a copy of letter showing he was invited by the nonprofit foundation. "That's all I know about it," he said.

Ignorance of the law usually provides no defense, nor does ignorance of a violation -- except in Congress, where ignorance is not only accepted, but practically revered. The AP quotes a legal expert in Congressional ethics that advises readers that ethics regulations only apply to those members who actually display competence:

Jan Baran, a Washington lawyer who specializes in ethics rules and campaign finance, said lawmakers and their aides probably would avoid any findings of wrongdoing by demonstrating they had no knowledge of the lobbyist payments.

"If a member generally doesn't know what's going on, it's hard to see how the member would be held to violate ethics rules," he said.

Of course, that's the entire reason that DeLay finds himself in the middle of these allegations of unethical conduct. He has been a tremendously effective legislator and political infighter, and the Democrats want him sidelined. However, as DeLay himself warned, he has done nothing that Democrats haven't also done, and in this case, apparently a few things less than that. Democrats tried to nail him for hiring his family as staff when many of their own members do the same thing, and spend the same amount of money doing so. Now they attack the travel records of his aides and in doing so, nail two of their own Congressmen in the process.

No wonder DeLay wanted the ethics probe to continue. At this rate, he may well neutralize ten or twenty representatives on the other side of the aisle before anyone lays a glove on him.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 3, 2005 5:48 AM

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