The House ethics committee said Thursday that Majority Leader Tom DeLay went "beyond the boundaries" of party discipline when he tried to persuade a Michigan Republican to support legislation that provided a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
The committee approved an investigative report that serves as "a public admonishment" against DeLay, R-Texas, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., and the lawmaker they were trying to influence, Rep. Nick Smith.
Smith was unpersuaded and stuck with his vote against the legislation in the Nov. 22, 2003, tally that ended at 5:51 a.m. The legislation passed the House by five votes.
DeLay and Miller linked a favorable vote by Smith to support of the House candidacy of Smith's son, the committee said. DeLay's promise of political support in exchange for a vote went "beyond the boundaries of maintaining party discipline," the committee said.
Smith made exaggerated statements "that bribes and special deals were offered" to influence him and other lawmakers on the Medicare bill. He also failed to fully cooperate with investigators, the report said.
The majority leader said he accepted the committee's findings, and its guidance that linking official actions with political considerations is impermissible and violates House rules.
"During my entire career I have worked to advance my party's legislative agenda. However, to this end, I would never knowingly violate the rules of the House," he said. "I deeply believe that as members of the House we must conduct ourselves at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on this institution."
Miller said she also accepted "their findings that I may have committed a 'discreet violation of the rules.' I also agree with the committee's finding that there was no evidence adduced of a pattern of misconduct."
Smith had no immediate comment.
The investigation, by a four-member subcommittee, was triggered when the retiring Smith said that unidentified lawmakers and business interests promised substantial money to his son's congressional campaign if he voted for the Medicare legislation. Smith said the same interests threatened to support other candidates if he didn't change his vote from "no" to "yes."
The committee found DeLay "offered to endorse Representative Smith's son in exchange for Representative Smith's vote in favor of the Medicare bill. In the view of the investigative subcommittee, this conduct could support a finding that Majority Leader DeLay violated House rules."
Smith stated that DeLay said to him, in a conversation that lasted about eight seconds: "I will personally endorse your son. That's my last offer." DeLay's account was mostly consistent with that of Smith, the report said.
Miller made a statement to Smith "that referenced the congressional candidacy" of Smith's son, the report said. "Representative Smith fairly interpreted Representative Miller's statements to him during the vote as a threat of retaliation against him for voting in opposition to the bill."
Miller recalled that she said something like, "Well, I hope your son doesn't come to Congress, or I'm not going to support your son, or something to that effect."
The report said Smith then "rose up out of his seat and said, 'You get out of here."'
In finding fault with Smith, the report said his statements about the financial offer "appear to have been the result of speculation or exaggeration" on his part.
Smith, who later backed off the allegation, stood firm in the pre-dawn House session on Nov. 22, 2003, and voted against the bill
which passed by five votes.
Smith said the amount offered for his son's campaign was $100,000. But on Dec. 5, Smith partially reversed himself in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said someone outside Congress had offered his son "substantial and aggressive campaign support" and Smith assumed that meant financial support. But he said it was "technically incorrect" to say money was offered.
Smith also said Republicans weren't pressuring him to back away from his previous comments.
Brad Smith lost in a six-candidate primary.
Smith later explained that he didn't think the incident met the legal definition of bribery. Under federal law, it is illegal to directly or indirectly promise something of value to a public official in order to influence a vote.
"If bribery is saying 'Look, you're not going to get that bridge in your district unless you vote for this,' then I'm sure the Justice Department is going to have a full-time staff looking into this," he said. "There's just a lot of political bluster on the floor."
The ethics panel is formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The new Medicare law was signed in December.