June 15, 2004
Public Citizen Applauds Rep. Chris Bell for Tearing Down the Wall of Silence on Ethics Complaints in the House of Representatives
Ethics Committee Now Must Consider Year-Old Public Citizen Complaint Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen
Public Citizen applauds Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) for breaking the unspoken agreement among all members of the House of Representatives not to file complaints against each other on ethics violations, regardless how egregious. By acting, Rep. Bell becomes the first House member to tear down the wall of silence on ethics complaints that for years has shielded representatives from being held accountable for serious lapses in ethical behavior. It is all the more courageous given that the complaint was filed against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
One year ago, Public Citizen requested the House Ethics Committee and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the ethical conduct of the majority leader on one of the allegations made by Rep. Bell: the Westar Energy scandal.
Rep. Bell’s action is a major accomplishment because it helps re-establish the enforcement of ethics in the House of Representatives. In the late 1990s, the House changed its rules on ethics procedures to prohibit any citizen or group outside the House to file an ethics complaint against a member of Congress. At the same time, members of the House unofficially agreed not to file any ethics complaints against each other. This effectively shut down the enforcement of ethics rules in the House.
Public Citizen’s complaints to the ethics committee and the DOJ about the DeLay-Westar connection were based in part on internal corporate memos from Westar, in which Westar executives plotted a campaign-contribution-for-legislative-favors scheme. The memos showed that Reps. DeLay, Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), who were leading the writing of the energy bill, suggested to Westar’s lobbyist a list of candidates to whom Westar should send campaign donations. In exchange, asserted one memo, we could “get a seat at the table.” Overall, $63,000 in campaign contributions were made to these candidates, including a $25,000 soft money contribution to DeLay’s leadership PAC (TRMPAC). In exchange, House officials inserted a special exemption for Westar from regulation under parts of the energy bill, potentially saving the company millions of dollars. The special exemption, which was quietly inserted into the energy bill that was in conference being negotiated by a House-Senate committee, was later dropped only after Westar came under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for corporate fraud.
Despite the clear smoking gun, Public Citizen’s complaint went entirely unacknowledged by the House Ethics Committee and by the Department of Justice, and no investigation of the scandal was forthcoming.
Until today. Thanks for your courage Rep. Bell.
Public Citizen now urges Rep. Bell or any other House member to pursue an ethics complaint against Reps. Tauzin and Barton.
To see the memos and complaints regarding the Westar scandal, click here.
To read the complaint filed by Rep. Bell as well as other materials relating to the House ethics procedures, click here.