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Originally published Friday, March 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Democrats block House ethics panel

The House, facing new controversy about the travel of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, was left last night with no mechanism for investigating...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The House, facing new controversy about the travel of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, was left last night with no mechanism for investigating improper behavior by its members when Democrats shut down the ethics committee by refusing to accept Republican rules changes that restrict the panel's power.

Democrats said they do not plan to allow the ethics committee to organize until Republicans repeal a series of rule changes they pushed through in January, making it more difficult to initiate an investigation unless at least one GOP member supports it.

The committee met in secret for the first time since House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., replaced the chairman and two members with legislators more loyal to the leadership. "These rules undermine the ability of the committee to do its job," Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the panel's top Democrat, said after a 5-5 vote that stalemated action. "An ethics committee has to do a good job if it's going to do any job at all."

The standoff followed a report that DeLay accepted a trip to South Korea in 2001 from a group that had registered as a foreign agent. House rules forbid members from taking gifts from such groups. The ethics committee already has admonished DeLay three times in the past year for official misconduct, and some experts believe the latest revelation is likely to trigger another investigation.

DeLay, 57, was treated yesterday for heart arrhythmia and wasn't available to comment. His office said the condition has been monitored for years.

Justice Department documents show that the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a business-financed entity, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act on Aug. 22, 2001. DeLay; his wife, Christine; and two other Republican legislators departed on a trip financed by the group on Aug. 25 of that year.

The exchange council, founded in 2001 under the charities section of the tax code, largely is financed by a South Korean holding company — the Hanwha Group. Sources familiar with the operations of the exchange council said yesterday the group apparently did not need to file under the Foreign Agents Registration Act and is exploring how to rescind its registration so legislators could accept its largesse.

Such a move could mitigate potential ethical issues for members of both parties who have accepted trips to South Korea from the group over the past four years, the sources said. At least eight House members, including Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and 15 aides are among that group, according to The Associated Press.

The 10-member House ethics panel, formally the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is unique among committees in that it is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats are resisting rules changes that make it impossible for the panel to open an investigation of a Republican unless one of the panel's Republicans agrees. Until January, a tie would trigger an inquiry.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who has an aide who accepted a trip from the exchange group last fall, said the ethics committee should look into DeLay's handling of the matter but did not mention her aide.

"This will be a challenge to this new order or lack of order in the ethics committee," she said. "Can a committee that has had a coup launched against it where they removed the chairman and took out two [GOP] members ... replacing them with people who have already contributed thousands of dollars to Mr. DeLay's defense fund? Is this ethics committee capable of reviewing matters regarding Mr. DeLay that are now in the public domain?"

Ron Bonjean, communications director for Hastert, said it was unclear last night how the logjam could be broken. "Democrats have chosen to slam the brakes on the ethics process," he said. "They have chosen to freeze the ethics committee."

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