House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), branding as “ridiculous” and “outrageous” a proposal that the Justice Department seek an independent counsel to investigate him, Wednesday declared that President Bush has given him personal assurances that his Administration will take no part in the controversy over possible ethics violations by the Speaker.
The Democratic-controlled Senate’s bruising rejection of Bush’s nomination of former Sen. John Tower to be defense secretary had led to concern among Democratic leaders that the Administration might retaliate by joining House Republicans in pressing ethical allegations against Wright to weaken him or strip him of the Speaker’s post.
Assured by Bush
But the Speaker, in an hourlong interview with The Times, said that Bush personally told him that he would have nothing to do with the ethics controversy. Sources close to the President also said that the President had made clear that he wants his Administration to stay out of the House fight.
Conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich, whose allegations of drunkenness and womanizing against Tower contributed to the Senate’s rejection of his nomination, has sent a six-page letter to Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh urging him to seek appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Wright. He said that such an independent inquiry is warranted because “it would be impossible for the executive branch to be immune from the political pressure and threats of political retaliation” from the Speaker.
Wright, lashing out at what he termed an increasingly “meaner” political environment in Washington, blamed “vicious” right-wing Republicans for his problems. But he said that he has refused to seek revenge and has “talked various Democratic members out of bringing retaliatory ethics charges against five different Republican members.”
“I told them I thought that was unnecessary and unbecoming and it would simply raise the decibel level of bitterness and anger and would not be productive to the institution, and I talked them out of it,” he said.
The Speaker, a fierce partisan who has many political enemies on Capitol Hill and some critics in his own party, said that the political environment “is mean and it’s been turning that way for several years, and it has gotten meaner. I regret that. I have not been a party to it, certainly not intentionally or knowingly. I regretted what was done to John Tower . . . I thought he got a bum rap on a couple of things.”
Letter Based on Allegations
The Weyrich letter rested heavily on allegations presented last May 26 to the House Ethics Committee by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). It contended that the charges amount to “specific and credible information” alleging a violation of federal criminal law, a condition required before an outside prosecutor can be sought.
David Runkel, a Thornburgh aide, said that Weyrich’s letter has been referred to the “proper people,” presumably the Justice Department’s public integrity section. The section has 15 days to decide whether the information is both specific and credible.
Weyrich said that the current House committee’s investigation does “not include investigation of criminal law” and it “is institutionally incapable of making a fair and impartial determination concerning criminal violations by one of its own members.”
He charged that Wright “has brought enormous political pressure on members of Congress to exonerate him of his wrongdoing.”
Claims GOP Supporters
Wright, interviewed in the Speaker’s office, declared that he has not even asked his colleagues to speak up in his defense. He professed to be heartened by Democrats who have spoken out voluntarily in his behalf and added that even some Republicans in the House have told him privately: “Jim, we’re sorry you’re having to endure this vicious attack. We know in our minds that you’ve not done anything wrong. We’ll be glad when it’s all over with.”
Leaning forward and angrily shaking his finger as he responded to a question about the Weyrich proposal, Wright declared: “It’s ridiculous! Outrageous! We’ve had an outside counsel in the House. He has taken nine months. He’s gone over the last 40 years of my life. He’s had the power of subpoena and $1.6 million with which to do it. Nobody could say this was anything but the most exhausting investigation that’s ever been made, I guess, of any member of the House . . . .”
The House Ethics Committee, which has been poring over a bulky investigative report by independent counsel Richard Phelan, a Chicago attorney, is expected to make its recommendations in early April. Under House rules, the committee could exonerate Wright or find him guilty of violations not serious enough to justify sanctions. Or it could issue a statement of alleged violations similar to an indictment and invite him to reply at a committee hearing.
If violations are found, possible penalties include a reprimand, censure or expulsion from the House.
Denies Violating Rules
The Speaker, insisting that he expects to be exonerated of any serious wrongdoing, said: “I have not knowingly violated any House rules, and I don’t believe that I have unknowingly violated a House rule. I know I haven’t done anything dishonest.”
Although conceding that he has made “slips in judgment,” Wright said that, if the House wants “a person of flawless and impeccable judgment and knowledge for Speaker, if they want the immaculate conception in the Speakership, then it isn’t I. I’m very human. Of course, I make a lot of mistakes as I go along . . . I’ve done a lot of things which in retrospect I wish I hadn’t done.”
Wright suggested that Phelan, despite conducting a thorough investigation, “probably misunderstood some of the rules of the Congress” concerning ethics.
“If Mr. Phelan misunderstands some of the rules, if he thought it would be a violation of the rule for a member of Congress to intercede in behalf of constituents, then he just has not been familiar with the practice here,” Wright said.
If Phelan believes that the rules forbid a House member to use “an aide to assist him in compiling and putting together his own writings in a book, the congressman’s own writings, then he thoroughly misunderstands,” he added.
Among the allegations before the Ethics Committee are that Wright pressured federal bank regulators on behalf of Texas savings and loan firms that were under federal investigation and that he may have improperly evaded limits on outside income when he arranged for publication of his slim volume, “Reflections of a Public Man.” The book was published by his political campaign printer and he received $55,000 under an extraordinarily lucrative royalty contract.
Cites 52 Other Books
Wright disclosed that he had presented to the committee 52 books in which congressional authors, including Gingrich and other GOP conservatives, “acknowledge in the forward assistance from members of their staff.”
In Wright’s case, however, the allegation involves not only a staff member’s help in compiling the book but the charge that he evaded a House limit on honorariums through bulk sales of the book to lobbyists.
Wright, dismissing concerns by some Democrats that his support in the party is eroding and that he could lose his Speaker’s post if the Ethics Committee finds any violations, said that his colleagues have assured him he will emerge from the ethics controversy “stronger than ever.”
“I walk out there on the (House) floor,” he declared, “and, before I get off the floor, a dozen colleagues will come and pat me on the back and say: ‘Hang in there. We’re with you. We know there’s nothing to these charges. We’re with you hell or high water. Hang in there. This will pass and you’re going to be stronger because of it.’ ”
Staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.