The House ethics committee charged Monday that House Speaker Jim Wright violated official rules of conduct 69 times by not disclosing thousands of dollars in alleged gifts and by skirting rules on speaking fees through bulk book sales.
The committee - six Democrats and six Republicans - unanimously approved the statement of alleged violations, announced the chairman, Rep. Julian Dixon, D-Calif.The charges, divided into five counts, and an accompanying report by Richard Phelan, the attorney who conducted the investigation, could jeopardize Wright's future as speaker.
The statement "represents a determination by the committee that in 69 instances, there is reason to believe that Rep. Wright violated the code of official conduct and other House rules which apply to him as a member of Congress," Dixon said.
He emphasized that the committee action is similar to an indictment - based on a comparatively low standard of proof - and not a conviction.
"The speaker of the House has not been found guilty of any violations, but from a review of the evidence the committee has found a reason to believe" violations may have occurred, Dixon said. "We have not reached any final conclusions on the matters that are still under investigation."
Dixon said the standard of proof for this stage was "a reason to believe" while the standard for future proceedings will be "clear and convincing evidence."
The committee determined that apparent gifts from his business partner, George Mallick, were improper because the Fort Worth developer had a direct interest in legislation.
"The nature and extent of the apparent gifts from Mr. Mallick indicates that Rep. Wright did not exercise reasonable care to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, which is the hallmark of the House gift rule," Dixon said.
The committee said the $145,000 in gifts included free or cut-rate use of a condominium in Fort Worth, an $18,000-a-year salary paid to Wright's wife, Betty, and free use of a car.
According to Dixon, the committee also charged that Wright skirted House limits on speaking fees by making bulk sales of his book, "Reflections of a Public Man."
"In the committee's view, seven bulk sales of the book demonstrated an overall scheme to evade the House outside earned income limit because (speaking) honorarium payments were recharacterized as royalties."
The panel cleared Wright of several accusations filed against him last year, including alleged use of a staff member to write the book, improper use of campaign funds and improper lobbying on behalf of constituents.
Dixon said the committee was continuing its investigation into another allegation surrounding the investment in an oil and gas well by Wright and Mallick. The committee has issued subpoenas in that case, he said.
"I am prepared to appear as early as Monday afternoon, but certainly the committee should be able to schedule a hearing within seven days," Wright said. Wright also asked that the committee expedite the process of determining whether he actually violated any rules.
Monday's statement of alleged violations by the committee is a list of charges roughly equivalent to an indictment and is not a verdict.
The committee, under its rules, next allows the accused to respond within 21 days - a period that the speaker's letter indicated he would like to abbreviate. After that, the committee has 30 more days to decide whether to hold a disciplinary hearing on whether Wright indeed violated rules and what punishment, if any, it should recommend to the full House.
"I continue to believe that I have not violated any House rules, and I am certain that I have never knowingly or intentionally done so," Wright said in the letter Sunday.