WASHINGTON — A tearful Speaker Jim Wright, flanked by Democratic barons of the House, vowed Thursday to fight to preserve his reputation as "a person of honor" and to disprove the House Ethics Committee's findings that he had violated rules of conduct.
Wright asked the House panel to allow him to appear personally as soon as possible to answer the charges against him. He declared that he would present "clear and convincing proof" that he is innocent of allegations that he improperly accepted gifts from a Texas business partner and evaded limits on outside income.
There was no immediate response from the committee, now in the final stages of deliberations on its 10-month investigation of Wright's financial affairs. It voted, 8 to 4, in closed session on Wednesday to file formal charges in the House based on the gifts and on income Wright earned from his 1984 book, "Reflections of a Public Man."
2 Democrats Break Ranks
Many of the Texas congressman's backers expressed anger and surprise that two Democrats on the 12-member panel--Reps. Chester G. Atkins of Massachusetts and Bernard J. Dwyer of New Jersey--joined the six Republicans to form a majority against the Speaker.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 15, 1989 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 National Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
In Friday editions of The Times, a chart on the House Ethics Committee transposed photographs of Rep. John T. Myers (R-Ind.) and Rep. Joseph M. Gaydos (D-Pa.).
Democrats hinted privately that there would be a behind-the-scenes effort to persuade Atkins and Dwyer to reverse their positions on Wright's possible culpability before the committee issues its final report early next week.
Even without any switches, however, leading Democrats said that the show of Democratic support for Wright demonstrated that his sometimes lonely battle has become a party cause, and that his chances for retaining his top House position are not lost.
Crusty Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) echoed the fighting tone that Wright used at his press conference, telling reporters: "He's not wounded. He's not hurt. He's just cut a little. He's got some bruises. It doesn't mean you don't win the fight and stomp 'em to death."
Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) took a more dispassionate approach, saying: "I think he becomes a liability, but I think he survives."
On Thursday morning, Wright made an emotional plea for support to a closed-door caucus of Democratic whips that one listener likened later to the famed courtroom orations of Clarence Darrow. "It was an incredible presentation, emotional and very skilled," the source said. "He was quite convincing."
Hours later, Wright delivered his public statement before reporters and television cameras in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol with more than 50 leading members of the House standing with him on the podium in a dramatic show of support.
Those who appeared with Wright included the entire House Democratic leadership, chairmen of powerful committees, leading conservatives and liberals and such well-known members as Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and veteran Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.).
They burst into prolonged applause when Wright, his voice breaking and his chin trembling with emotion, portrayed one of the charges against him as an attack on the integrity of his wife.
His wife, Betty, earned the $18,000 annual salary she received from an investment business owned by Wright and Ft. Worth developer George A. Mallick Jr., he insisted. It was not, as the panel concluded, a gift to him from an associate with an interest in federal legislation.
Emotional Defense of Wife
"My wife is a good, decent, caring, thoroughly honorable person," Wright said as tears welled up in his eyes. "I'll damn well fight to protect her name from any challenge by any source, whatever the cost."
Most of his 30-minute statement consisted of a lawyer-like rebuttal to the charges that his business partnership with Mallick was merely a sham designed to funnel money to the Wrights. He said it was a legitimate corporation that made small but "honorable" profits from 1979 until it was dissolved last year.
House rules ban members from taking more than $100 from persons with an interest in congressional business.
The Speaker also disputed the committee's other charge that he evaded a House limit on outside income by channeling speaking fees into bulk sales of his book of speeches and essays. While there is a ceiling on speaking fees, royalty payments on books are exempt from any limits.
Citing that exemption, Wright asserted that there was no violation.
"I am 66 years of age--66 years of living and giving; striving and sometimes failing, and sometimes succeeding," Wright said. "I believe I have earned a reputation as a person of decency, and as a person of honor and as a person of integrity.