Rep. Lamar Smith's Situational Ethics

January 20, 2011 2:27 pm ET

Despite Rep. Lamar Smith's experience on the House ethics committee and his strong rhetoric on morality, the new chairman's actual ethical convictions seem to fall along personal or partisan lines. Smith has contributed time, money, and votes in the support of fellow Republicans who were fighting ethics accusations, including former leaders Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich. While Smith suggested the alleged perjury of a fellow Republican was not "real wrongdoing," he condemned and voted to impeach President Clinton for the same charge.

Smith And Convicted Felon Tom DeLay

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay Convicted On Felony Money Laundering Charge. The Washington Post reported: "Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, the brash Texan who helped build and tightly control a Republican majority in his chamber until resigning in 2005, was sentenced by a state judge on Monday to three years in prison for illegally plotting to funnel corporate contributions to Texas legislative candidates." [Washington Post1/10/11]

  • DeLay Sentenced To Five Years In Prison On Separate Felony Conviction. The Washington Post reported: "[The judge] also sentenced DeLay to five years in prison on a separate felony conviction of money laundering, but agreed to let him serve 10 years of community service instead of jail time for that charge." [Washington Post1/10/11]

Smith Contributed $10,000 To DeLay's Legal Defense Fund. From the San Antonio Express-News: "[Texas congressional candidate John] Courage questioned $10,000 in donations made by Smith to a legal defense fund for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. ... 'I believe in our system of justice that we have in America that you are innocent until proven guilty. Tom DeLay, like anybody, is entitled to a good defense' Smith said." [San Antonio Express-News via Nexis, 2/9/06]

  • Smith First Donated $5,000 In 2000. From the San Antonio Express-News: "Smith said a $5,000 donation to DeLay was made in 2000 for legal defense of a charge that was later dismissed." [San Antonio Express-News via Nexis, 2/9/06]
  • Smith "Got The Ball Rolling" For DeLay Money Laundering Defense With An Additional $5,000. From the Austin American-Statesman: "House Republican leader Tom DeLay has re-energized his legal defense fund, raising at least $310,300 since summer to combat a Democrat's ethics charges and to monitor a Travis County grand jury investigation that led to indictments against three DeLay aides in September. Two Austin-area Republican House members got the ball rolling, with U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio writing the fund's first check of the year June 24, followed by, Rep. John Carter of Round Rock. Until then, the legal fund had collected no money since last year. Smith and Carter each donated $5,000, the annual limit, from their campaign funds." [Austin American-Statesman via Nexis, 11/17/04]

Smith Co-Hosted Event For DeLay PAC At Center Of Charges. According to the Washington Post, "In one previously unreported example of the tight connections, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), one of the committee's new members, was co-host of a 2002 fundraising breakfast to benefit the DeLay-founded political action committee that is now the subject of a grand jury investigation in Texas. The grand jury is looking into whether the PAC improperly used corporate funds to influence the outcome of state legislative races." [Washington Post3/14/05]

  • DeLay Used PAC To Solicit Illegal Corporate Contributions. According to the New York Times: DeLay was found guilty by the Texas court of "conspiring to funnel $190,000 in corporate donations" raised through his political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, "to state candidates through the Republican National Committee." [New York Times11/24/10]

Smith Supported Weakening House Ethics Rules To Make It More Difficult To Initiate Investigations. CNN reported of a meeting of the House Republican caucus:

But Republicans did vote to change one key rule to require a majority on the ethics panel -- which is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans -- to vote in favor of conducting a formal investigation into allegations of wrongdoing against a member.

Currently, an investigation is triggered if the committee remains evenly split for 45 days on whether to take that step. The new rule is designed to provide a "presumption of innocence" for the accused, similar to what exists in the judicial system, according to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who once led the committee. [CNN.com, 1/4/05]

  • Congressional Watchdogs: Change "All About DeLay." From the Associated Press: "Congressional watchdog groups joined House Democrats in opposition, saying the proposed changes were all about DeLay. 'All of this is designed to make one man truly above the law,' said Melanie Sloan, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said, 'Tom DeLay is a poster boy for ethics problems in the House.'" [Associated Press1/3/05]

Smith Was Subsequently Added To The Ethics Committee. According to the Seattle Times, on February 2, 2005, then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert "replaced two moderate Republicans on the [ethics] committee with DeLay ally Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and attorney Melissa Hart, R-Pa." [Seattle Times, 2/3/05]

  • Republican Complaints Prevented Smith From Being Named Chairman. According to the Seattle Times: "Smith has contributed to DeLay's legal-defense fund and had been rumored possibly to be named as the next chairman of the committee, but some GOP members complained that it would appear to be a conflict of interest if Smith were to be given the chairmanship." [Seattle Times, 2/3/05]
  • Smith Was Forced To Recuse Himself From Matters Concerning DeLay. From The New York Times: "Two Republican members of the House ethics committee who contributed to the legal defense fund of Representative Tom DeLay, the majority leader, recused themselves Wednesday from any potential investigation of him as the panel took the first steps that could lead to such an inquiry. After a two-hour meeting, Representative Doc Hastings, the chairman, announced that the two representatives, Lamar Smith of Texas and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, would not take part in any action relating to Mr. DeLay." [The New York Times5/5/05]

Smith and Ethics Violator Newt Gingrich

Smith Cast The Only Vote In Ethics Committee Opposing Punishment For Gingrich's Ethics Violation. The Dallas Morning News reported: Smith "cast the lone dissenting vote in committee against a reprimand and a $300,000 fine for Mr. Gingrich, who gave false information about the use of tax-exempt contributions for political purposes." [Dallas Morning News via Nexis, 10/19/97]

  • Smith: "He only ran a yellow light." The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette quoted Smith speaking about Gingrich's violation of House ethics rules: "He only ran a yellow light. ... The $300,000 punishment is too severe, not fair." [Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via Nexis, 1/26/97]

Smith Accused Of Making Threats To Secure Vote

Smith Accused Of Making A "Threat" In Exchange For Support For Rep. Blunt As Majority Leader. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Tensions broke into the open yesterday as House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) accused forces allied with Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) of threatening his panel's jurisdiction in order to win votes from Texas lawmakers for Mr. Blunt's bid to succeed Mr. DeLay.

[...]

Mr. Sensenbrenner, who supports one of Mr. Blunt's rivals, Rep. John Shadegg (R., Ariz.), said he heard that a deal had been made under which Mr. Blunt would favor the Commerce panel in return for support from Texas Republicans. When he approached Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), a Blunt backer on the Judiciary panel who has district ties to the former SBC Communications, Mr. Sensenbrenner said that Mr. Smith told him that if he were to back Mr. Blunt, "it would make this problem simpler" -- a remark the chairman said he took as a "threat."

"Blunt got caught," Mr. Sensenbrenner said of the alleged deal. But Mr. Smith said his remark was "obviously a lighthearted comment" and that he had assured Chairman Sensenbrenner that no such deal had ever been made."  [Wall Street Journal via Factiva, 1/31/06, emphasis added]

Smith's Selective Concern For Perjury Accusations

Wash. Post: Bush Deputy AG McNulty "A Central Figure" In U.S. Attorneys Controversy Due To Conflicts Between His Testimony And Testimony Of Other Officials. In an article on Bush Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's decision "to quit amid the controversy surrounding the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys last year," the Washington Post reported: "McNulty became a central figure in the furor after he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in February that the [Bush] White House played only a marginal role in the dismissals -- a characterization that conflicted with documents later released by Justice and with subsequent testimony." [Washington Post5/15/07]

House Judiciary Committee Grills McNulty Over Discrepancies. According to the Federal News Service, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) stated: "Last month the Judiciary Committee heard from Monica Goodling, former senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and the department's White House liaison. Ms. Goodling made specific allegations about the deputy attorney general [McNulty], including that he testified inaccurately before Congress and that he misled members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in a private briefing." [Federal News Service via Nexis, 6/21/07]

Smith Criticized Hearing For Not Addressing "Any Real Wrongdoing." According to the Federal News Service, during the same House Judiciary Committee, Smith stated:

We appear to be meeting to discuss what information Ms. Goodling says she shared with you, Mr. McNulty, or your staff, about the U.S. attorney dismissals prior to your Senate testimony in February, whether you were aware of that information, and if you were, why you did or did not convey some of that to the Senate.

I find this a little odd for several reasons. First, this exercise is not about whether there was any real wrongdoing in the U.S. attorney dismissals themselves. It's not about whether the administration did anything other than exercise its privilege to dismiss presidential appointees who were serving, in fact, at the president's pleasure. Instead, it's about the after-the-fact steps the administration took to explain its position that there was no wrongdoing. So-called scandals about attempted explanations have become a sub-plot of Washington theater." [Federal News Service via Nexis, 6/21/07, emphasis added]

By Contrast, Smith Was An Aggressive Pursuer Of Perjury Charges Against Former President Clinton. The Austin American-Statesman reported Smith saying: "As Congress fulfills its duty to consider the report of the independent counsel, the president has a responsibility to tell the American people the rest of the story. ... Even as he continues to offer apologies, the president has failed to tell the whole truth about allegations of covering up the facts in this case." [Austin American-Statesman via Nexis, 9/10/98]

  • Smith Voted To Impeach Clinton On Two Perjury Charges. [H.R. 611, Vote #543, 12/19/98; H.R. 611, Vote #544, 12/19/98]

Smith Wants To Help Friends In Congress Cash In

Smith Opposed Two-Year Lobbying Ban For Former Congress Members And Staffers. From CQ Weekly:

At a May 17 House Judiciary Committee markup, Democrats and Republicans agreed to strip the so-called "revolving door" provision, which would have extended the prohibition on lobbying from one year to two after a lawmaker or senior staff member left Congress. Extending the revolving-door rules, designed to avoid a conflict of interest when politicians take private-sector jobs, proved to be very unpopular among House Democrats. [...]

Judiciary Committee members said the two-year ban on lobbying, especially for senior Hill staff, would discourage highly qualified people from serving in congressional offices.

"A two-year ban is overly punitive to staff and some members," said Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking committee Republican. [CQ Weekly via Nexis, 5/19/07]

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