House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), under fire for ethics charges over his personal finances, resigned today, becoming the first Speaker in U.S. history to be driven from office by public scandal.
In an impassioned oration to a packed House chamber, Wright defended himself against the ethics allegations that he improperly enriched himself with sales of a slim volume, “Reflections of a Public Man,” and an $18,000-a-year job for his wife, Betty.
Frequently mopping his brow with his bare hand, the Speaker emotionally described for an hour the “agonizing experience” of the yearlong investigation by the House Ethics Committee and lashed back at critics who he said had taken partisanship to a deadly extreme.
“In God’s name, that’s not what this institution is all about!” he said.
“Let’s bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end! There’s been enough of it!” Wright said as lawmakers leaped to their feet with ringing applause.
Wright said his resignation will take effect as soon as a successor is chosen, probably Tuesday. House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley is in line to succeed Wright and has no known opposition for the speakership.
Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) appeared to be the front runner to replace Foley. Rep. Ed Jenkins (D-Ga.) was competing against Gephardt.
Wright worked alone in his office on the statement throughout the afternoon, up until minutes before he was to deliver it.
Wright’s resignation had been expected since last week, when his lawyers entered into several hours of negotiations with the Ethics Committee in an attempt to win dismissal of some of the alleged violations in exchange for the Speaker’s stepping down.
Wright himself has consistently denied knowingly violating ethics rules, but his political support among Democrats in the House eroded steadily as the Ethics Committee methodically investigated his finances.
One of the Speaker’s staunch defenders said Tuesday that the pressure on Wright to quit appeared overwhelming.
“I believe it’s probably too late to change things in his favor,” said Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.). Although “justice would be served by following the game to the end,” Wilson said, he expected his friend to step down.
The heat continued as CBS and The Washington Post, quoting unidentified sources, said the Justice Department’s public integrity section is launching a “preliminary criminal investigation” of Wright. Justice Department sources have previously said the department was monitoring ethics proceedings against Wright but had not decided on an investigation of its own.
Sources also told those two news organizations and the Los Angeles Times that the FBI is looking into allegations of payroll padding on the staff of Rep. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House.
Gray, currently vying to move up in the House leadership, said after CBS broke the story Tuesday that it was an “outrageous lie.” He said he was questioned by FBI agents Monday but was assured that he was not the subject of an investigation.
The Justice Department declined comment on the report.
Not waiting for Wright’s final decision, some of his own lieutenants were scrambling to move up in the ranks. The pressure on Wright and the power game were made all the more intense by the announcement last weekend that Rep. Tony Coelho of Merced, Calif., the House Democratic whip, would be resigning. Coelho’s resignation followed reports that he earned nearly $7,000 from a junk bond investment for which he never had to put up any of his own money.
Wright was charged last month by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct with violating House rules in 69 instances.
The most serious of those involve allegedly accepting improper gifts--including a no-work job for his wife--from a developer friend, and circumventing House rules on outside income through bulk sales of his book “Reflections of a Public Man.”
The Speaker has repeatedly insisted that he broke no House rules or any laws, and he has vowed to fight for the honor of his wife, who he contends earned her pay.
The Ethics Committee had been scheduled to meet Thursday to consider Wright’s motion to dismiss those charges. “I’m convinced our motions are legally well grounded,” he said Tuesday.
Another factor adding pressure on Wright was a continuing Ethics Committee inquiry into areas not covered by its original set of charges.
Rep. John T. Myers of Indiana, the senior Republican on the committee, said in answer to a question Tuesday that it might expand its investigation into Wright’s investment in a gas well drilling venture and a deal involving a nursing home company.
“It’s possible we could vote for a preliminary inquiry on those two issues,” Myers said,
The race to succeed Coelho as majority whip was wide open. Candidates included Gray, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), the chief deputy whip. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), a powerful member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, also was weighing his support.