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Democrats Tell Concern as Wright Vows to Fight : Speaker Is Applauded at Party Caucus in House but Members Cite Ethics Charges on Book Sales

Times Staff Writer

House Speaker Jim Wright, opening his battle to overturn Ethics Committee charges that could lead to his removal from the nation’s third-highest elective office, told a meeting of House Democrats on Tuesday: “I intend to fight and I intend to win.”

While acknowledging that he has made some mistakes in his 40-year political career, Wright added: “I have never dishonored this institution and I never will.”

His 30-minute closed-door appearance before party colleagues in the House chamber, at which he received a standing ovation, drew expressions of support from some Democrats, but others cautiously refrained from commenting.

Several said that they are concerned particularly by the charge that Wright skirted a House ceiling on speech fees by making bulk sales of his 1984 book to organizations that he addressed and then pocketing royalty payments, which are not subject to outside income limits.

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Some Democrats said that they would be testing public sentiment during a three-day recess, starting today, that will give them their first opportunity to discover voters’ reactions to the ethics investigation.

Meanwhile, in a letter to the Ethics Committee, Wright formally denied “each and every allegation” lodged against him. The panel Monday formally accused Wright of violating House rules 69 times by scheming to evade the House limit on speaking fees and by improperly accepting $145,000 in gifts from a Texas business partner.

Wright renewed his request for an expedited hearing in the case, offering to appear as early as today before the 12-member panel. Having lodged the charges, the committee must now decide whether to uphold or dismiss them, based on a more stringent test of the evidence. It then will recommend punishment, if any, to the full House. Attorneys for the committee and the Speaker were working out details of his appearance, which could come next week.

In his remarks to the Democratic caucus, an organization of the 261 Democrats in the House, Wright delivered an assertive point-by-point rebuttal to the allegations, unprecedented against a Speaker. He particularly challenged the committee’s charge that $72,000 received by his wife, Betty, over a four-year period constituted a gift from Texas real estate developer George A. Mallick Jr.

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The Speaker insisted that she earned the money she received from a Wright-Mallick partnership by giving investment advice to the company, and he produced affidavits from two Texas business people to bolster his contention.

A Ft. Worth restaurateur, Kay F. Snyder, said that she had discussed a possible winery investment with Betty Wright on many occasions in 1984. John A. Freeman, a Ft. Worth investor, said that he had discussed prospective projects with her in recent years.

Got $18,000 a Year

The committee has alleged that there was no evidence she did any work for her $18,000-a-year salary from 1980 to 1984, or for the use of a Ft. Worth condominium and a car provided by the developer. House rules prohibit the receipt of gifts of $100 or more from persons with a direct interest in federal legislation.

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Wright, however, issued a statement entitled “Betty Wright Worked” and said that the ethics panel had ignored testimony supporting her contention.

“I know of people who get more than $18,000 for sitting on boards of directors and attending four meetings a year,” Wright told reporters.

This argument struck a chord with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who said that the charges related to Mrs. Wright’s income are “very questionable. I, myself, as a woman find it interesting that her time is not supposed to be worth $18,000 a year. Men have a habit of trivializing the contributions of women.”

Democrats leaving the party caucus said that Wright’s audience was attentive throughout his detailed defense and applauded him warmly at the end. Even so, there were some who expressed grave concern about the outcome of the case.

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“Legally, he has a case,” said Rep. Ed Jenkins (D-Ga.). “We’ve lost the war already on perception.”

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), vice chairman of the caucus, said that disclosures about the book sales are Wright’s most serious problem.

“It was bad,” he said of the ethics panel’s unanimous decision on the charges. “But we hope the facts will make a difference.”

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said that Democrats will be aware of public opinion as the case proceeds and that members must decide whether to retain Wright as Speaker.

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“The easy thing for Democrats to do is to throw Jim Wright over the side and instantly install (House Majority Leader) Tom Foley behind the wheel,” Williams said. “It may be that the toughest political vote of our lives will be the one to save him.”

Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley) added another sobering note: “My colleagues are asking: Are we witnesses at a shoot-out at the OK Corral? Is it going to be a member a month?”

At least one Democrat, Timothy J. Penny of Minnesota, said that he did not attend the caucus because he resented efforts to turn Wright’s case into a party cause.

“We’re trying to make it us against them, Democrats against Republicans,” he said. “That’s not the nature of these ethics questions.”

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Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) came to Wright’s defense by charging that the Ethics Committee charge related to Wright’s book sales was based on an erroneous impression of the legislative history of House rules.

The House intended to make a flat exemption for book royalties in its treatment of members’ outside income. Even if Wright found “a quite inventive way to finagle the rule,” Obey said, it would not amount to a violation.

Obey, who made similar remarks at the caucus, was the principal author of the rules changes adopted by the House in 1977.

According to a report filed by Richard J. Phelan, the Ethics Committee’s special counsel, Wright--realizing that he had reached the income limit from speech fees--on many occasions directed that speech sponsors buy large quantities of his book, “Reflections of a Public Man,” in lieu of a fee for speaking. He earned an unusually large 55% royalty on sales of the book.

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