"I know in my heart I have not violated any of the rules of that institution," Wright said in a speech to the construction and trades department of the AFL-CIO. "I love that institution."
The Texas Democrat also used the speech to repeat his call for a speedy hearing on the charges.
The 69 accusations were detailed in a five-count "Statement of Alleged Violations," which is the legislative equivalent of an indictment. The statement was released by the 12-member committee yesterday at a news conference in the Rayburn Office Building.
Both committee Chairman Julian C. Dixon (D., Calif.) and Vice Chairman John T. Myers (R., Ind.) emphasized that the allegations were not proof of guilt and were based on preliminary findings that there was "reason to believe" the violations occurred.
"This has been a preliminary inquiry," Myers said. "At this point, the speaker must be considered innocent of all charges until proven otherwise."
Wright's first step will be to convince the 12 ethics committee members that he did not willfully violate any House rules.
The committee will conduct a public trial to determine Wright's guilt or innocence on the charges, applying a higher standard of proof than it has thus far. Then it will recommend whether a punishment should be imposed. Punishment could be a fine, a reprimand, censure or, the ultimate sanction, expulsion
The next step for Wright will almost certainly come in the full House. A vote on whether to reprimand Wright for the alleged violations is considered likely, regardless of the committee's recommendation.
Despite the disclaimers, the weight of the evidence amassed in a 279-page report by committee counsel Richard J. Phelan is impressive. In all, Phelan told reporters, 73 witnesses were interviewed under oath and more than 7,000 pages of documents were examined.
Shortly after the committee released its findings, Wright's attorney, William C. Oldaker, held a news briefing at which he handed out a 108-page rebuttal.
Oldaker said the findings "required a very, very low threshold of proof" and expressed confidence that when the committee weighed them against a tougher standard requiring "clear and convincing" proof, Wright would be exonerated.
He also complained that Phelan's investigative report contained ''mischaracterizations of fact" that Wright would challenge.
The ethics committee undertook its investigation in June, after Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.), and later Common Cause, the citizens lobby, accused Wright of six violations. However, none bore fruit in the panel's inquiry. Those accusations were found to lack even the lower standard of proof required by the committee to prompt further investigation, Dixon said.
However, the allegations did open the door to a wider inquiry of Wright's affairs, leading the committee to conclude that other rules had been broken. The committee report ended up focusing on Wright's relationship with Fort Worth businessman George Mallick, a friend and former business partner, and royalties Wright received on a book he wrote.
The committee charged that Mallick gave $145,000 worth of gifts to Wright and his wife, Betty, between 1979 and 1988. House rules bar members from accepting gifts worth more than $100 from people with a direct interest in legislation, and the panel concluded Mallick had such an interest. In addition, the money was income that Wright did not report on House financial disclosure statements.
Besides $72,000 in salaries paid to Betty Wright for work the committee doubts she actually performed, Mallick gave the Wrights free and, later, cut- rate use of Fort Worth condominiums and gave Betty Wright free use of a 1979 Cadillac. The total value of those gifts, the committee said, was nearly $73,000.
These benefits, the committee said, were funneled through a business partnership - called Mallightco - formed by the Wrights and Mallick and his wife, Marlene, in 1979. Both parties put up about $58,000 to capitalize the venture.
"Throughout Wright's investment in Mallightco," Phelan contended in his report, "it was used as a conduit for cash flowing from the Mallicks to the Wrights."
"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," the committee said in its statement accompanying Phelan's report.
The committee did not identify specific legislation that Wright could have altered for Mallick. However, it contended that Mallick's extensive business holdings in real estate and oil and gas projects "set him apart" from the interest that ordinary citizens might have in such issues - and therefore caused Wright to violate House rules against accepting gifts worth more than $100 from persons with a direct interest in legislation.
Rep. Martin Frost (D., Texas), one of Wright's chief defenders, called such reasoning "flimsy" and said it endangered any member of Congress who had ever befriended wealthy people.
The other area of alleged wrongdoing involved breaking rules limiting outside earned income by selling a book he wrote to lobbying groups in lieu of accepting speaking fees.
House rules say a member cannot earn from outside sources an amount that exceeds 30 percent of the member's congressional salary. Speaking fees, personal appearances and other honoraria are counted toward the limit. Book royalties are not.
From 1984 to 1987, the committee said, Wright and his chief aides marketed his book, Reflections of a Public Man, largely through bulk sales to lobbists, educational institutions and individuals. The book sold for $5.95 and he received a profit of $3.25 per copy for himself, an amount that is four times the usual book royalties.
The committee detailed seven instances in which the speaker's top lieutenants urged groups that invited Wright to speak to buy books rather than pay an honorarium.
"In several instances, Wright's staff, particularly Marshall Lynam, informed the organization, either before or after Wright's speech, that Wright had reached the legal maximum on honoraria, and suggested that the organization purchase the book instead," according to Phelan's report.
Lynam, the speaker's chief of staff, said yesterday, 'It's true I encouraged some people to buy the book, because I thought it was good and provided some insight into Jim Wright's thinking and philosophy. I will tell you, the book purchases were never under any circumstance a condition for Mr. Wright's speaking or appearing."
In some cases, Phelan reported, the buyers told Wright's aides not to bother sending them the books but to distribute them to whomever the speaker wanted.
The apparent result, Phelan wrote, was that some books were sold twice. Receipts kept by the book's printer, William Carlos Moore of Fort Worth indicate that more than 21,200 books were sold, about 2,000 more than were printed.
The charges that committee absolved Wright of included allegations that Wright had improperly intervened with federal banking regulators on behalf of troubled Texas savings and loan associations, that he had improperly interceded with government officials on behalf of oil and gas interests, that the publication arrangements for his book amounted to a conversion of campaign
funds to personal use and that he misused government resources by having a staff aide work on the 117-page volume of his writings.