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Originally published Thursday, October 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Hastings says ethics panel won't investigate DeLay

Rep. Doc Hastings, the Washington state Republican who chairs the House ethics committee, touched off a political controversy this week...

Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Rep. Doc Hastings, the Washington state Republican who chairs the House ethics committee, touched off a political controversy this week with statements supporting embattled Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Hastings told the Yakima Herald-Republic that his committee would not investigate a 15-month-old complaint about DeLay's role in alleged illegal campaign contributions in Texas.

Such an investigation would duplicate the work of the Texas district attorney who obtained indictments against DeLay over the fund-raising issue, Hastings said. "We don't have the resources," he added.

A Hastings spokeswoman later said the congressman wasn't ruling out an investigation after the criminal case.

In the Yakima interview, Hastings also suggested that the case brought by Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle in Austin, Texas, is a Democratic partisan move.

"If you look at Ronnie Earle's background, he's done these things," Hastings said. "The majority leader has said this is a political vendetta."

DeLay stepped down as House majority leader after the first indictment, for criminal conspiracy, was handed up last week. He was indicted on two money-laundering counts this week.

Hastings' comments were criticized by Democrats and some public-interest groups.

"It's outrageous for the chairman of the ethics committee to virtually endorse the idea that the indictment is a political vendetta. It's a matter that is before the committee," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Chris Bell, a former Texas Democratic representative who filed the ethics complaint against DeLay in June 2004, accused Hastings of using his chairmanship to protect the former Republican leader.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, the committee voted unanimously to defer action on the matter until the criminal investigation was complete.

"They said they would hold off, but they agreed to review it later," said Bell, now running for governor in Texas.

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Hastings spokeswoman Jessica Gleason said Hastings didn't say the panel wouldn't take up the DeLay complaint.

"Congressman Hastings was simply referring to the ethics committee's longstanding practice of deferring action on matters being prosecuted by state or federal authorities until the judicial process has run its course," Gleason said.

She also said the panel couldn't afford to duplicate investigations.

Once the criminal prosecution is finished, Gleason said, "An adequate investigative record can be made available to the committee without the need to go out and reinvent the wheel."

Rep. Joel Hefley, the former ethics-panel chairman, recalled a previous case in which criminal and ethics investigations occurred simultaneously.

"We went to the DOJ [Department of Justice] and kind of got permission to continue with an investigation that we were very deeply into," said Hefley, R-Colo., ousted from the ethics chairmanship by GOP leaders in January.

Ornstein said Hastings' comment about a lack of resources "does not wash" in light of a 40 percent budget increase for the panel in April.

Hastings lobbied for the money to create a more "ethical culture" in the House.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington, D.C., public advocacy group that specializes in campaign-finance reform, said the ethics panel could investigate at least seven issues involving DeLay.

Six other congressmen also are facing ethics probes. They include Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who gave an illegal tape recording of a phone call to the media in 1997.

The committee has not met formally since May, when Hastings caused a stalemate over partisan staffing issues. The panel will not have a full investigative staff in place for another month.

Hastings received $4,500 from DeLay's political-action committee, ARMPAC, in 1994; he received a $1,400 in-kind contribution from ARMPAC in 1998.

Public-interest groups have called on Hastings and others, including Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., to return money they received from DeLay or his PACs. Reichert has received $20,000 from DeLay.

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

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