House speaker Jim Wright Tuesday took his defense against ethics charges to the most important jury of all - the 260 House Democrats who re-elected him speaker just four months ago and who will have the final say over whether he keeps that post.
Wright addressed a closed-door session of the Democratic Caucus in the House chamber, and as members streamed in they said they were concerned but were keeping an open mind."Members want to hear from the speaker," said Rep. Michael Andrews, D-Texas. "Much depends on him and how he responds."
Democratic Whip Tony Coelho, D-Calif., predicted Wright will be able to knock down many of the 69 charges against him and will remain speaker. "The main thing is for the American people to understand that these are mere accusations," he said.
Wright insisted he had done no wrong.
"In my heart I have not violated any of the rules of that institution (the Congress). I love that institution just as I love this country," Wright, 66, said earlier.
Under rules of the panel, Wright has 21 days in which to answer the accusations, and the committee would have another 30 days to respond to any motions he might make. Wright, however, sent the committee a letter saying he wants to speed up the process.
Filing of the charges on Monday made Wright the first speaker in U.S. history to be formally charged with ethical wrongdoing by the House, although some of his predecessors have been tainted by scandals.
The voluminous report of the ethics committee included new details about how he sold thousands of copies of his book, "Reflections of a Public Man," to special-interest groups. Several colleagues called those deals the most troubling of the charges against the Texas Democrat.
In one case, a March 1986 speech to the Fertilizer Institute, the trade group planned to give Wright a plaque or a small gift in return for his appearance. But Wright's office arranged instead for the group to buy $2,023 worth of books, yielding the congressman $1,112 in royalty income.
House members are limited by the rules to accepting no more than 30 percent of their salaries in outside speaking fees. The House ethics panel found reason to believe that Wright circumvented that limit by converting speech honorariums into book royalties, which are exempt from the limits.
In two other cases - a speech to the Ocean Spray cranberry organization in the fall of 1985, and a speech in March 1986 to the Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association - Wright sold books instead of collecting speaking fees and was given the books to distribute as he saw fit. The ethics committee saw those as unreported gifts to the speaker.
"My view is that count one (dealing with the book sales) is the most serious issue," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the organization of all 261 House Democrats.
"It's a bad day. It looks rotten. But at some point in time, the facts do make a difference" and will help the speaker, he said.
The speaker's problems were the No. 1 topic of conversation on the House floor, but lawmakers were reacting cautiously.
"I think we have a responsibility to keep our minds open and our mouths shut until we have an opportunity to read the report," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.
"We learned that the charges are not trivial, they are not technical, and they are not aimed at his wife," as Wright had argued last week, said Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., a close ally of Georgia Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich, whose complaint last May launched the Wright investigation.
Republicans were going out of their way not to lambaste Wright, fearing that to do so would only make it easier for the speaker to rally Democrats against what he has portrayed as a partisan vendetta. Instead, Republicans simply pointed to the ethics panel's unanimous bipartisan vote to issue the formal statement of charges against Wright.
Democrats pinned their hopes on rebutting what they saw as the weakest part of the ethics committee's case, the charge that Wright improperly accepted some $145,000 in gifts from Fort Worth developer George Mallick because Mallick had a direct interest in legislation before Congress.
The rules bar acceptance of more than $100 in any calendar year from a person deemed to have a direct interest in congressional action.