Interview with former Congressman Chris Bell on Ethics

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Last week, in what was called a bloodless coup, House Speaker Dennis Hastert revamped the makeup of the House Ethics Committee. Replaced were lawmakers who had demonstrated a willingness to act independently in investigating powerful figures like Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Newcomers were all DeLay loyalists. Former Congressman Chris Bell, the man who has done as much as any other in bringing Tom DeLay’s ethical transgressions to public attention, agreed to answer some questions about this ethics shake up and others for the Daily DeLay.

Daily DeLay: Recently, Speaker Dennis Hastert replaced three of the five Republican members of the House Ethics Committee. All three had taken action against Tom DeLay. What do you make of this decision by Hastert? What message does it send?

Chris Bell: Packing the Ethics Committee with DeLay loyalists further immunizes the Republican congressional leadership not just from the Democrats but also from democracy. I filed the ethics complaint against Tom DeLay not because I'm a Democrat and he's a Republican or even because he drew me out of my congressional seat but because he engaged in corruption to further his plans to disenfranchise voters in Texas. The message the Speaker sent by doing this is that the Republican congressional leadership does not feel like it needs to play by the rules anymore, and they don't even care what it looks like.

DD: Before you filed your complaint last summer regarding Tom DeLay's fundraising practices and other questionable activities, there was a seven-year long "ethics truce" between Democrats and Republicans. Was this good for Congress?

CB: The American people expect public servants to be able to police themselves. But instead of designing a system to enforce ethical conduct, Tom Delay and his cohorts have implemented a self protection system. Obviously, it wasn't good for democracy. Fair play should be a minimal expectation, and the "ethics truce" prevented Congress from meeting even that low standard.

DD: What made you decide to break the ethics truce and file the complaint? Aside from the content of your complaint about DeLay, was there some event or experience while serving in office that was particularly eye-opening?

CB: There were several incidents which led up to the filing of the complaint. The first story to be reported involving Mr. DeLay's unethical conduct involved Westar. In those early reports, it clearly appeared that Westar was seeking special treatment in exchange for its financial contributions. However, the initial reports did not focus a great deal on Westar's contributions to Mr. DeLay's political action committee, TRMPAC. The next major story involving Mr. DeLay's questionable practices came following the walk-out by the Texas lawmakers who fled to Ardmore, Oklahoma to block redistricting. Following the walk-out, it became known that Mr. DeLay had violated House rules by using his position as a congressman to try to get the Department of Homeland Security involved in what was clearly a political matter. But the story which led me to include all of the incidents and to file them in one complaint was published in September of 2003 by the Texas Observer; it was titled "Rise of the Machine" and, in clear black and white reporting, it detailed how and why Mr. DeLay's Texas financing scheme was designed and implemented. That's when it became so abundantly clear that DeLay and his aides had flagrantly thumbed their noses at Texas law and that something needed to be done.

DD: Some people in Washington claim that the general public doesn't care about these ethical matters. You've suggested in a variety of interviews that the contrary is true. Why do you personally care about these issues and why are you right and others wrong?

CB: I think one reason many didn't care was because the stories printed about some of the matters were difficult to understand, weren't covered for very long or very thoroughly and often seemed to be part of a so-called game of "gotcha." But basically ethics stories are boring because they concentrate on process instead of characters and narrative. The DeLay story struck a nerve with people all across the United States because Tom DeLay put a face to what Walt Whitman called "the never-ending audacity of elected persons." Suddenly, they could see corruption up close. They could understand the way the Majority Leader had abused his position and why. People got angry because Tom Delay was making their votes irrelevant.

Immediately after the complaint was filed, I began receiving letters, faxes, phone calls and e-mails supporting my action. Back in Texas, strangers would approach me on the street to thank me for filing the complaint. I trust a great deal of that support was driven by an intense dislike for Tom DeLay but a lot of it was also due to people's fundamental sense of fairness. The American people do not begrudge anyone his or her power until they start abusing it. That's where the line is drawn and thousands apparently believed that Mr. DeLay had crossed it. If people need proof, they need look no further than the results from Mr. DeLay's last election. He runs in a district where 65% of the people usually vote for the Republican candidate. However, DeLay only received 55% of the vote and, even more striking, in his home county, Fort Bend, where every Democratic stronghold had been removed, the Majority Leader only received a little over 51% of the vote. What should that tell folks? People care about ethics.

DD: You are considering a run for Governor of Texas. Will ethics and campaign finance reform be major themes in your campaign?

CB: I am actively exploring the race for Texas Governor in 2006 and people can read more about my reasons for doing so at Texas has a lot of challenges, but if I choose to run I will talk about opening democracy to mainstream Texans and not just to a closed circle of entrenched ideologues. Redistricting and corporate campaign corruption have closed the doors of the capitol to all but wealthy interests who gain entrance through a revolving door in the lobby.

Ethics in government has always been important to me. When I served on the Houston City Council before going to Congress, I chaired the Ethics Committee and we passed some of the most sweeping ethical reforms the city had seen in years. I will always look for ways to make government more open and accountable.

I don't pretend to be perfect; I've made mistakes just like everybody else. When I have, I've owned up to the mistakes and moved forward. I guess what bothers me so much about what I now see going on in both Washington and in Texas is an effort to keep people from finding out about the mistakes of lawmakers and then when they're uncovered, an effort to fool people and pretend there was nothing wrong. My sense is that people aren't being fooled and are sickened by a lot of the abuses they see. If I can help open the system, I'm going to.