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DeLay assails panel, accusers

Ethics complaint libelous, he says

WASHINGTON -- House majority leader Tom DeLay went on the offensive after being chastised twice in the past week by the House ethics committee, accusing his accusers of libel and the bipartisan panel that judged him of mistreating him.

DeLay's lawyer, Ed Bethune, sent a 33-page letter to Representative David Dreier of California, chairman of the House Rules Committee. Bethune said in the memo that the House should prevent lame-duck lawmakers like Representative Chris Bell from filing ethics complaints.

Bell, a first-term Democrat from Texas, lost his seat in a primary that followed a DeLay-engineered redrawing of House district lines in Texas so Republicans could win more seats.

Bethune wrote that the House should consider finding Bell in contempt for "libeling" DeLay. He also faulted the panel for its procedures.

"Mr. DeLay never had an opportunity to appear and argue his position, and there was no offer to allow Mr. DeLay the courtesy of submitting a comment that could be published along with the committee's report," Bethune wrote.

On Wednesday the ethics committee admonished DeLay, the second-highest Republican in the House, for creating an appearance of giving contributors special access on pending energy legislation and of using the Federal Aviation Administration to intervene in Texas' 2003 redistricting dispute.

The ethics panel is awaiting the outcome of a campaign finance investigation in Texas before dealing with a third allegation in Bell's complaint.

Ethics committee chairman Joel Hefley hadn't seen Bethune's memo, but he said he thought the committee treated DeLay fairly.

"If DeLay and his lawyer feel he was treated unfairly, they can come back and we can open it all back up again," said Hefley, Republican of Colorado.

Bell's spokesman, Eric Burns, said DeLay was attempting to undermine the ethics committee.

"It's telling that less than 24 hours after Mr. Delay is publicly admonished by the ethics committee, he is attempting to dismantle the ethics process. What we need in Congress is a more open and stronger ethics process and not a weaker ethics process," Burns said.

Bethune said Bell and the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington libeled DeLay when they alleged that he violated the federal gratuity statute, a felony. He said Bell and the group incorrectly defined the statute to make it appear that DeLay had committed a crime.

Bell said earlier Thursday that he based his complaint on reports that were available at the time and he was able to cobble together. "We felt it was filed in very good faith and was at a level to support accusations of bribery and extortion," Bell said.

He said DeLay was "engaging in a strategy of shooting the messenger."

DeLay learned of the ethics committee's findings only two hours before the panel's decisions were publicly released.

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