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House ethics system criticized

WASHINGTON -- The House ethics system has almost stopped functioning because public interest groups no longer can file complaints and party leaders have an informal agreement not to trigger new investigations, several organizations said yesterday. Judicial Watch, a conservative organization joined mostly by liberal groups at a news conference, urged reversal of the prohibition against nongovernment organizations and an end to what the groups called a sweetheart pact to avoid investigations.

In citing examples of stonewalling, the eight organizations said the House ethics committee has not taken action on allegations that majority leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, is using a children's charity for political purposes; or on a reported offer from unnamed Republicans to Representative Nick Smith, Republican of Michigan, to aid the congressional campaign of his son if he voted for the Medicare overhaul last year.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said DeLay "has horse blinders on" where ethical conduct is involved.

The DeLay charity, "Celebrations for Children," plans to throw parties and offer a luxury suite for major donors to watch President Bush's acceptance speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention in August.

The organization will raise money for abused and neglected children by using the events at the New York convention as a drawing card, paying the bill with a portion of the donations from the visitors.

Jonathan Grella, DeLay's spokesman, said: "These Democrat front groups are engaged in dirty campaign politics. Their entire complaint rests on the contention that raising money for abused foster children doesn't reflect credibly on the House. Majority leader DeLay strenuously disagrees."

Smith has declined to comment about the alleged attempt to influence his Medicare vote, although he told a radio station last year that he was promised $100,000 for his son's campaign. Smith voted against the legislation.

The public interest groups said the ethics committee has taken action on only five cases since 1997, when the panel ended an investigation of former speaker Newt Gingrich. The groups said 13 other cases should have been investigated, but no action was taken.

Chellie Pingree, chief executive officer of Common Cause, said that without an invigorated ethics committee the public's attitude will be, "They're all crooks."

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said, "The ethics committee today serves as a shield for members of Congress rather than a committee to protect the interests of the institution and the American people."

The committee chairman, Republican Joel Hefley of Colorado, declined to comment.

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