HES NOT SAID HES going to stop raising money for anybody.
Okay, its a tough sentence to parse. But Susan Hirschmann meant it when she said it in 1999, referring to the settlement of a racketeering suit House Democrats filed against her boss. Tom DeLay cant stop. No one raises money like the majority leader, who brings in $12,000 a day when hes at the top of his game.
Lately hes been off his game. Way off. Early this month Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers raised $160,000 for DeLays legal-defense fund. Rogers is running for chair of House Appropriations and needs DeLays help. DeLay needs the money. And more, if you care to send in a check. The House Ethics Committee has just handed DeLay two reprimands within one week. Three fund-raisers working for a political-action committee he set up in Texas have been indicted and face long stretches at the Big Rodeo one as long as 99 years. DeLays former press secretary and one of his closest advisers are being investigated by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee for a scandal involving the
$66 million they billed (or bilked) six Indian tribes for lobbying and PR work. A federal grand jury in Washington is looking into the same billing (more than General Electric and the pharmaceutical companies paid for lobbyists during the same time.) Sometime this month, DeLays daughter Danni Ferro will be subpoenaed by lawyers representing former Texas legislators who claim DeLays Texas PAC illegally raised the money that defeated them in 2002. Its been a tough autumn for the majority leader. Winter will be even worse.
The story of the criminal indictments in Texas only makes sense if the back story is explained. For 10 years the Republican Party had been trying to capture the Texas House. Party operatives aimed for 2000 so the House, the Senate and the states Republican governor could have absolute control of redrawing the states congressional district lines when the Legislature met after the 2000 census. Despite years of spending record sums on campaigns, in 2000 they fell short. And the Democratic House speaker refused to go along with the governor and Senates effort to reconfigure the states district lines so that a half-dozen more congressional seats could be won by Republicans.
Thats when Tom DeLay came home to Texas. Working with one of his Washington operatives, he created a political-action committee in Texas, modeled on his own national PAC. Texans for a Republican Majority was spectacularly successful. It raised $1.5 million and elected 17 new Republican members of the state House, seizing control of the body for the first time in 130 years. With his handpicked Texas House speaker in place, DeLay personally presided over the redrawing of the states congressional districts. The map he put in place will provide the Republicans five to seven new seats in Congress.
But theres this problem with Texas law. Since 1905, its been against state law to raise or spend corporate money in Texas. And DeLays Texas PAC raised three-quarters of a million corporate dollars. They reported their corporate contributions only with the IRS in Washington, avoiding disclosure to the state agency that regulates elections in Texas. Ronnie Earle, a D.A. with statewide prosecutorial authority, caught them. He also found they were doing some odd things with their money, like sending $190,000 corporate soft dollars to the Republican National State Election Committee in Washington in exchange for $190,000 non-corporate hard dollars that can be legally spent in Texas. DeLay insists he had little to do with Texans for a Republican Majority, which seems odd since he founded it. And the PACs Texas director said under oath that DeLay was consulted on PAC activities. DeLay has said he raised no corporate money himself, but a June 24, 2002, letter I found in the exhibits of a civil suit filed in Austin suggests otherwise:
Dear Congressman DeLay:
On behalf of the Williams Companies Inc., I am pleased to forward our contribution of $25,000 for the [Texans for a Republican Majority] that we pledged at the June 2 fund-raisers.
With best wishes . . .
HES GOING TO NEED THEM. As is Williams Companies Inc., one of eight corporations indicted by the Travis County D.A.
At about the same time I found the letter from Williams vice president of government affairs, the Washington Post turned up e-mail records of DeLay asking Enron CEO Ken Lay for $100,000 in corporate and individual money to be used in the Texas elections. If reporters are producing incriminating documents, its likely the D.A.s criminal investigators have them. DeLay now faces the looming prospect of his three Texas fund-raisers and officers of eight corporations that contributed corporate funds to his PAC testifying under oath in state district court. The indictments in Austin, said a lawyer working on the civil suits filed by Texas Democrats unseated by DeLays PAC, point directly to Washington.
Then theres the other $25,000 check from Westar Energy. The corporate contribution led to the second House Ethics Committee reprimand the majority leader received in one week. Its easy to dismiss an admonishment by House Ethics, as DeLays lawyer Ed Bethune did when he talked to reporters. Yet any action by the committee is big news. Everyone on Capitol Hill knows House Ethics has all the vitality of a Ralph Nader presidential campaign. In 1997, House Democrats and Republicans reached an unofficial agreement that they would file no ethics complaints against each other. At the same time, new House rules barred outside parties from filing complaints. So the committee acts only when the conduct of a House member is so outrageous it cannot be ignored.
Since 1999, it has reprimanded DeLay three times, a distinction no other member of the House not currently in prison can claim. In 1999, the committee wrote a private letter to DeLay, and a memo to all House members, after DeLay pulled a major piece of legislation off the House floor to try to stop a trade association from hiring a former Democratic congressman. (DeLay insists that lobby positions go to Republicans only). Before it addressed the $25,000 Westar contribution last week, the committee reprimanded DeLay for promising to support the campaign of the son of Congressman Nick Smith in exchange for Smiths vote on the Medicare prescription-drug bill passed last November. Yet in one of the stranger stories of the last Congress, the central and most incriminating allegation related to the story disappeared. The day after the vote, Smith had said a $100,000 political contribution (something like a bribe) was linked to the offer of support for his son. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. By the time Smith got to the House Ethics Committee, he had recanted, perhaps because the allegations regarding money are a prosecutable offense.
In that case the committee acted on its own. The second current Ethics Committee reprimand was a response to the complaint that ended the seven-year truce. Chris Bell, a former Houston congressman who lost the primary when his district was redrawn, submitted a long bill of particulars regarding DeLays role in redistricting in Texas. In response, the committee admonished DeLay for attending a golf tournament with Westar executives. DeLays golf with the boys from Westar occurred after they gave him $25,000 to get a seat at the table, at a conference committee hearing of an energy bill the company wanted to amend. They got their amendment, on DeLays orders, but it was pulled when a Westar executive was indicted on unrelated charges. In the same action, committee members also voted to admonish DeLay for using the FAA to track down the plane of a Democratic legislator who flew from Texas to Oklahoma in an attempt to break a House quorum Republicans needed to pass DeLays redistricting plan.
DeLay even has problems in the Senate, where a committee is investigating an Indian-lobby scandal involving his former press secretary Mike Scanlon and his friend and longtime adviser Jack Abramoff. Together they billed six Indian tribes a staggering $66 million in four years. That money also moved in odd circles. Abramoff is a registered lobbyist, subject to disclosure requirements. So Scanlon did most of the billing, then discreetly moved the money back to the older Abramoff. But large sums went to the American International Center, a think tank run by a lifeguard and yoga instructor who are friends of Scanlon. And to various charities directed by Abramoff. And to the Republicans national government association, which got a $500,000 check from Scanlon in 2002 not too long after he finished paying off his college loans.
Scanlon and Abramoff are a regular Washington laugh riot, beloved and admired in Republican circles. But they failed to pay attention to the basic rules of lobbying. In particular the one that advises lobbyists to avoid describing clients as morons, monkeys, and fucking troglodytes in e-mails that might be someday subpoenaed. Senator John McCain and the members of Senate Indian Affairs are now poring over those e-mails. As are two D.C. FBI offices and a grand jury. At least one of the leaders of the tribes that got stiffed on the lobbying fees has openly complained about Abramoff and Scanlon selling their access to DeLay. After Shawn Martin of the obscure American Press in Lake Charles, Louisiana, broke the story early this year, DeLay warned anyone using his name to impress lobbying clients to stop immediately. He was a few years too late.
The last elected official to make a serious run at DeLays fund-raising operation was Henry Waxman. The Los Angeles congressman was investigating $37,000 in illegal political contributions that cost a Texas donor recruited by DeLay $400,000 in fines, while DeLay walked. (Actually, he flew away from the district on the poor guys tab.) But House Government Reform Committee chair Dan Burton used his majority position to block Waxmans subpoena of the FBI files and notes that might have told the whole story.
Ronnie Earle has subpoena power in Austin, where he is convening a third grand jury. As does John McCain in Washington, where Indian Affairs has issued subpoenas for the first time in the history of the committee. The Washington grand jury investigating the scandal has even subpoenaed Imelda Marcos, so this one could really get strange. Everybody is lawyered up. Its beginning to look like some of these guys might end up sharing a cell with Jimmy Traficant, the tonsorially challenged Ohio Democrat put away two years ago for bribery and racketeering. And if DeLay escapes indictment in Texas, his designs on the speakers chair in Washington are history.
Lou Dubose is co-author with Jan Reid of The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress (Public Affairs).
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.