The U.S. House ethics committee announced yesterday that it would investigate a complaint against Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle. Ohio Republican Rep. David Hobson...

Share story

WASHINGTON – The U.S. House ethics committee announced yesterday that it would investigate a complaint against Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle.

Ohio Republican Rep. David Hobson filed an ethics complaint Nov. 16 alleging that McDermott had violated certain laws, rules and standards of conduct when he leaked an illegally intercepted cellphone tape in 1997.

The House ethics committee has established a four-member subcommittee to conduct an inquiry.

The bipartisan subcommittee will be chaired by Republican Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois.

McDermott was on vacation, and his Washington, D.C., staff had no comment.

The subcommittee will determine whether McDermott violated the House Code of Official Conduct, which states members must behave “at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives.”

Once the investigation is completed, the ethics committee, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, can drop the complaint or write a disciplinary letter.

In extreme cases, the committee has recommended expulsion, which must be voted on by the entire House.

The ethics-committee announcement came two months after a federal judge ruled against McDermott in a civil lawsuit over the leaked tapes.

Another Ohio Republican, Rep. John Boehner, sued McDermott in 1998.

During a 1997 cellphone call with Republican leaders, Boehner talked about a pending ethics-committee probe of House Speaker Newt Gingrich over the way Gingrich had funded a college course he taught through a tax-deductible political-action committee.

At the time, Gingrich was publicly promising not to organize opposition to the ethics probe, and the cellphone conversation suggested he was violating his pledge.

A Florida couple intercepted and taped the call and gave it to McDermott on Jan. 8, 1997.

At the time, McDermott was the highest-ranking Democrat on the ethics committee.

McDermott then leaked the tape to The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The New York Times published a front-page story on Jan. 10, 1997, with the headline: “Gingrich is Heard Urging Tactics in Ethics Case.”

Three days later, McDermott resigned from the ethics committee after the Florida couple identified him as the recipient of the tape.

Gingrich was fined $300,000 and reprimanded by the House. He resigned his seat in November 1998.

The couple who gave the tape to McDermott pleaded guilty to unlawfully intercepting the call and were fined $500 each. The Justice Department has never pressed charges against McDermott.

Boehner sued McDermott, charging that the eight-term lawmaker had violated state and federal wiretapping laws.

In October, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ordered McDermott to pay $60,000 plus attorney fees that could total more than $545,000.

In a harshly worded decision, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan said McDermott’s “willful and knowing misconduct rises to the level of malice in this case.”

In November, McDermott filed an appeal; he faces the possibility of thousands of dollars in additional legal costs if he loses.

McDermott said his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

“Certainly, one would like to get it behind you.” McDermott said last month. “But sometimes you say, ‘I can’t walk away from the principle.’ “

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com