In a report on new ethics charges surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson downplayed their significance by omitting key facts about DeLay's conduct as well as recent steps by Republicans to weaken the House ethics committee, apparently in an effort to protect DeLay. But Wilson did take the time in the same report to use half-truths to bolster DeLay's claim that he is the victim of a "partisan witch hunt."
In a report on the March 15 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Wilson showed clips of reporters aggressively questioning DeLay about the allegations earlier that day outside a political fund-raiser, with DeLay sidestepping the cameras and declining to answer questions. Next, he purported to explain why DeLay is "being sought in this manner":
WILSON: Why is he being sought in this manner? He has already been slapped on the wrist three times by the House ethics committee. Though, as he points out, he was not found to have violated House ethics rules.
In fact, DeLay has been "slapped on the wrist" not three, but five times by the House ethics committee. The committee admonished DeLay in fall 2004 for three separate incidents, but prior to 2004, the committee had already chastised DeLay twice for separate incidents in 1997 and 1999. The ethics committee itself referred to these prior incidents in its October 6, 2004, letter of admonishment to DeLay, which warned: "In view of the number of instances to date in which the Committee has found it necessary to comment on conduct in which you have engaged, it is clearly necessary for you to temper your future actions." A footnote explained:
In addition to the two matters addressed in this letter and the conduct addressed in the Committee report of last week, there was the Committee letter to you of November 7, 1997 that concerned, in part, statements that may create the impression that official access or action are linked with campaign contributions, and a confidential Committee letter to you of May 7, 1999.
Moreover, while the committee did not find that DeLay "violated House ethics rules," it did state in a September 30, 2004, report that his "conduct could support a finding that Majority Leader DeLay violated House rules" (p. iii). The committee made this statement based on its finding that DeLay improperly "offered to endorse Representative [Nick] Smith's [R-MI] son in exchange for Representative Smith's vote in favor of the Medicare bill." Smith's son, Brad Smith, was running to succeed his father. The vote in question was a fiercely contested late-night vote in 2003 on creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Similarly, the committee did not find that DeLay had violated House rules in the second incident for which the committee recently admonished him, but it did note that DeLay's "intervention in a partisan conflict in the Texas House of Representatives using the resources of a Federal agency, the Federal Aviation Administration ... raises serious concerns under House standards of conduct that preclude use of governmental resources for a political undertaking." In the third recent incident, the committee admonished DeLay for attending an exclusive, invitation-only fund-raiser with energy executives, organized by one of his political action committees. Again, while the committee did not find that a violation had occurred, the committee found that "at a minimum ... [it] created an appearance that donors were being provided special access to you regarding the then-pending energy legislation."
Following the false claim about DeLay's ethics history, Wilson continued with vague descriptions of two other ongoing ethics investigations involving DeLay that gave no hint of their seriousness:
WILSON: In Texas, a political action committee he [DeLay] helped form is being scrutinized by a grand jury. DeLay says that's a partisan witch hunt. And now questions are swirling about an all-expense-paid trip he made to South Korea in 2001, and about dealings a former DeLay staffer had with Indian casinos.
In fact, recent revelations indicate that DeLay accepted lavish, expense-paid trips to South Korea and Britain funded by business interests, including an organization registered as a foreign agent of South Korea and several gambling companies with a direct interest in legislation then pending before the House. As for the grand jury investigation, three former DeLay aides have already been indicted in Texas. The investigation concerns corporate money in Texas alleged to have been illegally funneled to DeLay's PAC to help Republican candidates in the state. The money was crucial to the Republicans' ultimately successful effort to capture a majority in the state House of Representatives and to use that majority to redraw the state's congressional districts to favor Republicans in an unusual mid-decade redistricting. This redistricting helped unseat four Democratic representatives in the November 2004 election.
Wilson didn't note any of these facts; instead, he offered half-truths to bolster DeLay's "partisan witch hunt" claim:
WILSON: DeLay didn't talk about that [the trips and the Texas campaign finance investigations] in his speech today. He aimed his fire at Democrats.
DeLAY [clip]: They have put style above substance, politics over people, and partisanship over everything.
WILSON: Democrats were indeed trying to raise a partisan point on the floor of the House. Minority leader Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] wanted to complain about how Republicans changed the way the ethics committee in the House is organized and operates. The Republicans shut that down in very short order.
In fact, Republicans did not simply "change the way the ethics committee in the House is organized and operates." They weakened the committee by granting either party complete power to block a complaint against a fellow party member and replacing two Republican committee members with DeLay loyalists. The Associated Press reported on January 4 that the rule change "[p]rovides that the ethics committee will take no action on a complaint against a member unless the chairman and ranking minority member, or a majority of the committee, find within 45 days that an investigation is merited. Previously a complaint automatically went to an investigative committee if no action was taken within 45 days." The Washington Post reported on February 11: "House Democratic leaders yesterday sought the removal of two recently appointed Republicans from the House ethics committee, questioning whether their contributions to Majority Leader Tom DeLay's legal defense fund would color their judgment on issues involving him."
Moreover, it's far from clear that Pelosi was "trying to raise a partisan point on the floor of the House" when she introduced a resolution addressing the ethics changes. The resolution she introduced (H.Res. 153) would have decreed that "the Speaker shall appoint a bi-partisan task force with equal representation of the majority and minority parties to make recommendations to restore public confidence in the ethics process." Wilson also failed to note that the former ethics committee chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO), whom the Republican leadership replaced as chairman following his role in the committee's admonishment of DeLay, broke ranks with his party and voted for Pelosi's resolution.