A special counsel investigating misconduct charges against Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) has completed a seven-month inquiry and delivered a final report to the House Ethics Committee, the panel announced Wednesday.
Chairman Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles) called the 12 members of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to a meeting today to discuss the panel's next step, but he said that it may take up to three more weeks to reach a final decision in the long-running controversy.
The report was not made public, and the committee said in a statement that it would have no comment on the findings of Richard Phelan, a prominent Chicago lawyer who was retained to examine allegations first raised by House Republicans almost a year ago.
Dixon said that the committee will discuss scheduling of oral presentations by Phelan and by Wright's lawyer, Washington attorney William Oldaker, at today's meeting without discussing the substance of the charges.
To Hear Arguments First
Only after hearing the final arguments, Dixon said, would the panel begin deliberations on a decision in the case.
"I would say the committee won't make any determination on the issue until the week of March 13," Dixon told The Times.
He said that he intends to allow the attorneys for the committee and Wright to take "as much time as they need" for arguments before the panel starts to weigh the evidence and issue its verdict.
Under the committee's procedures, it could order a disciplinary hearing before making any recommendation for punishment if it finds that there has been wrongdoing.
Proclaims His Innocence
Wright, again proclaiming his innocence, said that Phelan's inquiry looked into 40 years of his public and private life in a "thorough and exhaustive" way.
But he said that he has no idea when--if ever--the report will be released, adding: "All that's in the hands of the committee, as it should be. . . . The sooner, the better, from my point of view.
"I do know there hasn't been any violation of law, of House rules or any commonly accepted standards of ethics," the Speaker told reporters on the eve of the committee's first working session this year.
Wright has been accused of violating ethical standards by pocketing $55,600 in royalties from his 117-page book, "Reflections of a Public Man," that was purchased in large quantities by his political supporters, including the Teamsters Union.
Variety of Charges
He also faces charges of using undue influence with federal agencies on behalf of two Texas oil firms and a savings and loan firm from the state. In addition, critics have cited his rent-free use of a Ft. Worth condominium belonging to the son of a long-time business associate.
While the Speaker insisted that he is glad the committee had conducted what it terms a preliminary inquiry, the tenor of his remarks indicated otherwise.
"I supposed it would take about two weeks," Wright observed. "Eight months later, I'm most anxious for them to get it done. . . . Maybe, in a way, I ought to take it as a compliment, because if we hadn't been so effective (as Speaker) they wouldn't have been so determined, so intent, so passionately devoted to try and disrupt the leadership."
Republicans File Request
While he mentioned no names Wednesday, Wright and his associates have accused Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) of sparking the demand for an investigation in a series of House speeches early last year. When the citizens' organization, Common Cause, endorsed the idea last May, Gingrich and 70 other House Republicans filed a formal request with the ethics panel for an inquiry into the Speaker's conduct.
A month later, the committee's six Democrats and six Republicans voted unanimously to start the inquiry and appointed Phelan the chief investigator last July.
At his own request, Wright appeared before the panel Sept. 14 and answered questions on his financial affairs for more than five hours.
Since then, he has come under harsh criticism from fellow Democrats for his handling of a proposed 50% pay raise for members of Congress, federal judges and top officials of the executive branch of government.
While the original strategy of the House leadership was to let the pay increase take effect without a vote--as the law allowed--Wright apparently buckled under strong public pressure and distributed a survey to all House members seeking their views on the issue. He then proposed a trimmed-down 30% pay increase, together with a ban on payments for congressional speaking appearances. But opponents forced a vote on the original 50% pay raise, and it went down to overwhelming defeat.
While House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) insisted that there was no significant erosion of support for the Speaker among Democrats, some party members said privately that Wright's popularity had suffered considerably from the debacle.
If so, it could affect the intensity of his support from Democrats in any showdown over the outcome of the Ethics Committee case.