updated 11/18/2004 10:31:52 PM ET 2004-11-19T03:31:52

The House ethics committee Thursday night turned the tables on Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s accuser, rebuking Rep. Chris Bell for exaggerating misconduct allegations against the GOP leader.

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While the complaint by Bell, D-Texas, led to an ethics report that admonished DeLay, Bell nonetheless violated a rule barring “innuendo, speculative assertions or conclusory statements,” a committee letter said.

The committee’s Republican chairman and senior Democrat used the four-page letter to Bell to warn lawmakers that making exaggerated allegations of wrongdoing could result in disciplinary action against the accuser.

Bell was not disciplined. He lost in a primary earlier this year because of a DeLay-engineered redistricting plan, and will leave Congress when the session adjourns.

In the future, exaggerations and misstatements also could lead to dismissal of a complaint, said the letter from Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., and senior Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia. The panel they lead is formally called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Bell’s complaint was not dismissed, the letter said, because it contained allegations against DeLay, R-Texas, 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 and improperly persuaded U.S. aviation authorities to intervene in a Texas political dispute.

Hefley and Mollohan wrote Bell, “Indeed, it appears there is no purpose for including excessive or inflammatory language or exaggerated charges in a complaint except in an attempt to attract publicity and hence, a political advantage.”

The letter said Bell promoted his complaint “by including such excessive or inflammatory language or exaggerated charges in press releases and other public statements.”

The letter 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.

“There can hardly be a more serious charge against a public official than that he or she solicited a bribe,” the committee letter said. It added that DeLay’s actions “did not come even close to supporting this extremely serious claim.”

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.

Bell’s complaint also asserted:

  • The majority leader “engaged in a concerted and relentless effort to use the official resources of office” for “blatantly partisan political activities.”

The Hefley-Mollohan letter said this broad allegation was not supported by the facts.

  • DeLay dispensed special favors to Westar.

The committee said the Bell complaint cited no action taken by DeLay for Westar. The committee findings in the DeLay case did say that Westar was seeking help with legislation at the time of the golf outing.

  • DeLay was solely responsible for federal aviation authorities tracking down an airplane in an effort to locate Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state. The legislators left Texas in an effort to thwart state Republican legislators from passing DeLay’s redistricting plan.

The letter said it was a misstatement to attribute actions of federal officials solely to DeLay, when the Texas Department of Public Safety also contacted federal aviation authorities.

  • DeLay contacted the FBI in the effort to locate the Texas lawmakers.

The letter said there is no indication that DeLay called the FBI.

In another development, the committee decided to take no action against Rep. Karen McCarthy after finding that she misused campaign funds for a trip to the Grammy Awards and refused to repay the money.

In recommending no sanctions against the Missouri Democrat, the panel cited her retirement in January and said the Federal Election Commission could pursue the matter.

“I’m pleased the committee recommended no action, as I know I did nothing wrong,” McCarthy said in a statement. “I am confident that based on controlling FEC precedent, my campaign activities at the Grammys did not violate federal election law.”

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, such as a trip to the 2003 Grammy Awards in New York, where she stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Lawmakers are prohibited from using campaign funds for personal spending under the House Code of Official Conduct as well as FEC regulations.

Media reports prompted the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to review McCarthy’s case. The panel said she refused to respond to its requests for information about the trip to the Grammys.

“In view of her failure to establish that her trip had ‘bona fide campaign or political purposes,’ we concluded in the middle of this year, and advised Representative McCarthy, that she was required to repay the expenses of that trip to her campaign account using personal funds,” the committee said in a statement.

“However, to date she has failed to make the required repayment or even to state her intention to do so,” said the statement, issued jointly by Hefley and Mollohan.

“Normally such disregard of committee determinations by a member would warrant the initiation of a formal disciplinary proceeding against the member,” the lawmakers said.

They said the panel decided not to pursue disciplinary action because it was impossible to complete before Congress adjourns and McCarthy leaves the House and because the FEC could resolve the matter.

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