House ethics committee leaders say the complaint that led to a rebuke of Republican leader Tom DeLay in October was filled with exaggerations. They warned lawmakers of possible discipline if it happens again.
The complaint against DeLay by Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, violated a committee rule barring use of "innuendo, speculative assertions or conclusory statements," ethics Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., and senior Democrat, W.Va, Alan Mollohan wrote Bell.
The House Committee on Standards For Official Conduct did not, however, withdraw any of its earlier criticism of DeLay for possibly taking bribes and breaking state campaign finance laws.
Hefley, of Colorado, and Mollohan, of West Virginia, also used the four-page letter to Bell to place all House members on notice that future use of exaggerations and innuendoes could result in dismissal of the complaint in addition to disciplinary action.
The letter to Bell was not a disciplinary action.
DeLay told reporters Friday that in filing the complaint, Bell "acted out of anger of losing his seat in Congress ... and turned his obsessive rage on me."
But Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said although DeLay repeatedly refers to the charges as "partisan attacks," the bipartisan ethics committee has rebuked him repeatedly.
"Tom DeLay proved this morning that he is not only unethical, but delusional," Pelosi said. "No amount of mud slinging can hide the fact that Mr. DeLay has repeatedly abused his power. This has resulted in four rebukes by the Ethics Committee."
Bell and DeLay have other grounds for sparring: Bell lost in a primary earlier this year because of a redistricting plan that put Republican congressional contenders at a distinct advantage, which was engineered by DeLay, a fellow Texan.
A freshman, Bell said he has "grave concerns that this [letter] is going to intimidate other members from coming forward to file meritorious complaints in the future. We need to work to open the ethics process up, not clamp it down. This is further evidence that the ethics process in the House is broken and needs to be fixed."
But in a statement by the ethics committee Friday, members said the letter to Bell was "not intended to inhibit" members from filing ethics complaints.
"Instead, the effect of this action should be to prompt any member who is considering filing a complaint to review its contents carefully and to ensure that the complaint does not contain any of the objectionable elements that are identified here," the statement said.
The committee letter was delivered to Bell's office Thursday.
Bell's complaint, however, was not dismissed, the letter said, because it contained allegations against DeLay that warranted consideration; and because the committee had not previously rejected any complaint for violations of the rule against innuendo and speculation.
The committee concluded in October that DeLay appeared to link political donations to a legislative favor andto intervene in a Texas political dispute.
An unflinching conservative, DeLay rose to power in 1994, when Republicans gained a majority and he defeated a rival backed by party leader Newt Gingrich to become whip. Over time, he built a reputation as impervious to criticism and able to count — and deliver — votes on difficult bills in a House increasingly divided along party lines.
At the same time, he built a formidable fund-raising operation that aided Republican candidates and helped expand his power base when they won office.
The committee found in October that DeLay "created an appearance" of favoritism when he mingled at a 2003 golf outing with Westar executives just days after they contributed to a political organization associated with DeLay.
The letter to Bell about his complaint said the most serious exaggeration was Bell's contention that DeLay violated a bribery law "by soliciting campaign contributions" from a Kansas corporation, Westar Energy, in return for legislative assistance on an energy bill.
In other DeLay news from The Hill, House Republicans showed their appreciation of the majority leader this week by approving a rule change that could enable DeLay to retain his leadership post if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury on state political corruption charges.
CBS News Capitol Hill correspondent Bob Fuss reported this week that by a voice vote, and with a handful of lawmakers voicing opposition, the House Republican Conference decided that a party committee of several dozen members would review any felony indictment of a party leader and recommend at that time whether the leader should step aside.
The current party rule in this area requires House Republican leaders and the heads of the various committees to relinquish their positions if indicted for a crime that could bring a prison term of at least two years.
It makes no distinction between a federal and state indictment. Three of DeLay's political associates already have been indicted by that Texas grand jury.
Although he is being investigated, there is no indication that DeLay will be indicted in connection with a Travis County, Texas, campaign finance investigation.
In another development, the committee decided to take no action against Rep. Karen McCarthy, D-Mo., after finding that she misused campaign funds for a trip to the Grammy Awards and refused to repay the money.
"I'm pleased the committee recommended no action, as I know I did nothing wrong," McCarthy said in a statement.
McCarthy announced her retirement last year following allegations, first reported by The Associated Press, that she improperly used her campaign and people on her House staff for personal benefit.