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Panel extends ethics probe against House leader

WASHINGTON -- The House Ethics Committee yesterday declined to dismiss a complaint accusing the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, of misusing his office to raise money for Republicans and to marshal government resources against Democrats.

The committee said it would extend a preliminary inquiry into the charges made against DeLay, a Texas Republican, for up to 45 days. The extension could push a decision on whether the accusations warrant a formal investigation to past Labor Day, when the fall election campaigns are in high gear.

DeLay has denied the allegations and labeled as frivolous the complaint filed last month month by freshman Representative Chris Bell, Democrat of Texas. The complaint is the first filed against a House leader by a member of Congress since the ethics committee took up a case against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997.

"We've repeatedly pointed out that these partisan accusations by Chris Bell are untrue, based on innuendo and prompted by campaign considerations. We have and will continue to disprove them all," DeLay's office said in a statement issued late Thursday.

DeLay's office declined yesterday to release his response to the committee answering Bell's accusations.

The committee, which met behind closed doors Thursday, said the extension will ensure "that we have sufficient time to obtain and consider information pertinent to the determination we are to make" on the complaint. It added that the extension is not a reflection on the substance of the allegations in the complaint.

"It demonstrates the committee is taking the complaint seriously," Bell said yesterday, calling on DeLay to publicly release his response to the committee.

Bell lost his March primary after his district was altered by a DeLay-orchestrated realignment of Texas congressional districts in 2003. His complaint to the 10-member ethics committee alleges:

That DeLay illegally solicited and accepted political contributions from the Kansas-based Westar Energy Corp. in return for legislative favors. In 2002 when a major energy bill was being put together in Congress, Westar executives contributed $58,200 to various campaigns and political action committees, including $25,000 to DeLay's PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority.

That the same political action committee in September 2002 sent $190,000 in corporate funds to the Republican National Committee "in an apparent money-laundering scheme" to provide funds for GOP candidates to the Texas Legislature. Texas law prohibits corporate contributions to candidates for state office.

That in 2003, DeLay misused his office by asking the Federal Aviation Administration and Justice Department to help track down Democrats in the Texas Legislature who had fled the state to prevent Republicans from getting a quorum to pass the GOP redistricting plan.

A Texas grand jury also is investigating whether Texans for a Republican Majority and the Texas Association of Business funneled $2.5 million in corporate contributions to Republican state House candidates in 2002. DeLay has not been questioned or subpoenaed in that investigation.

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