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For a politician who is so plainly annoyed by liberals seeking to embarrass him, Tom DeLay has always made himself an easy target. Accusations of corruption against DeLay are hardly new, since the public record of his disdain for ethical standards dates back at least a decade. But now the national media, liberal and otherwise — including the Wall Street Journal editorial page — have shown renewed curiosity about the workings of DeLay Inc., the majority leader’s gargantuan, greasy machine for fundraising and lobbying.
With investigations of DeLay cronies proceeding in both Washington and Texas — and indictments against three of his closest associates in Austin — that machine is starting to resemble a beleaguered criminal syndicate. According to recent estimates, the Republican lobbyists who formerly worked for the House majority leader have raked in more than $40 million. That figure doesn’t include the enormous and notorious rip-off of several Indian tribes perpetrated by lobbyists Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and Ralph Reed, which is currently being probed by the Justice Department.
Wednesday, in the latest episode, reporters reopened the files on the Texan’s family, with a front-page New York Times examination of $500,000 in payments from DeLay’s political and “charitable” groups to his wife, Christine, and his daughter Dani DeLay Ferro during the past four years. His office explained that the missus, who stays home in Sugar Land, Texas, “provides big picture, long-term strategic guidance and helps with personnel decisions.” (Isn’t that special?)
Such high-dollar family values bring the DeLay saga full circle — all the way back to the original ethics case against the majority leader brought by the Congressional Accountability Project, a watchdog group affiliated with Ralph Nader. Nine years ago, the watchdog group filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee that focused on the activities of DeLay’s younger brother Randy. A failed restaurateur and attorney who had filed for bankruptcy in 1992, Randy’s fortunes brightened considerably after Tom rose to the House leadership — and Randy started handing out business cards as a Washington lobbyist.
For the past several years, after drawing unwanted attention to the DeLay family’s business methods, Randy DeLay has kept his head down — but kept doing business exactly the same way.
Back in 1995, the year of the Republican “revolution” that brought his brother to power, Randy DeLay first turned up as a lobbyist employed by Cemex, the Mexican cement monopoly suspected of illegal economic “dumping” of its product in the United States. He joined with the powerhouse Texas law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski to protect Cemex from sanctions. Meanwhile, Tom DeLay wrote articles and circulated letters among his congressional colleagues, urging the Commerce Department to refrain from punishing Cemex for trade violations.
In the usual course of congressional procedure, the House Ethics Committee — then chaired by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn. — applied a fine coat of whitewash to this apparent violation, ultimately dismissing the complaint against DeLay. But a question still lingered: Why would Cemex, represented by one of the best-connected and most skillful lobbying law firms in the country, require the costly services of a two-bit Houston lawyer like Randy DeLay?
Reporters in Texas and Washington found that Cemex was not alone in discerning Randy’s hidden abilities. A coalition of special interests seeking federal funds to build an interstate highway from Texas into Mexico, known as I-69, likewise found reason to hire the younger DeLay. (Between 1995 and 2000, he was paid almost $400,000 for his work on the project.) So did Union Pacific Railroad, which faced opposition to its monopolistic merger with Southern Pacific — and which had also hired Fulbright & Jaworksi to lobby for the deal.
Coincidentally, Tom DeLay mobilized his clout behind both Interstate 69 and the Union-Southern merger, rounding up colleagues to emphasize his support.
While the majority leader and his brother both escaped any official sanction for these gross examples of influence peddling, Tom realized that Randy had become an embarrassment. He declared that his little brother had become persona non grata in his office. Of course, he added, Randy had never had any influence over him anyway.
Indeed, an intimate 2001 Washington Post profile of the Hammer and his family rather credulously suggested that the earlier ethics flap permanently ruptured the relationship between Tom and Randy. “Tom said, ‘I can’t afford you as a brother right now. You chose lobbying over me,’” Randy told the Post. He said that Tom had “cut him off cold,” and not spoken to him since. More recently, however, Randy seems to have realized that such tales might be bad for business. Last July, he told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that stories of their estrangement are untrue.
“I specifically do not discuss with my brother, nor does he know any of my clients, nor do I know his staff or what they do,” he insisted. “We just don’t discuss those matters. I love my brother to death and I’m very proud of all the things he’s doing. It’s just the innuendos and the implications behind those innuendos that I get tired of.”
Yet during the past four years, Randy DeLay has quietly continued to acquire lobbying clients, particularly in South and West Texas. Local officials in the Lone Star State clearly believe that they can still purchase the good will and assistance of the majority leader by hiring his brother. The local newspapers, though largely ignored by the national media, have been following DeLay’s controversial lobbying career quite closely — because the county taxpayers keep asking why they must hire the majority leader’s brother to obtain adequate representation in Washington. After all, they ask, isn’t Tom DeLay supposed to help his home state without the necessity of paying his brother?
Just to make sure, county officials have been signing deals with brother Randy.
In Brownsville, the local navigation district hired him to obtain millions in federal funding for deepening river channels. According to the Caller-Times daily newspaper, Randy DeLay has been hired to promote Brownsville’s Brazos Island Harbor and the Corpus Christi Packery Channel dredging projects, as well as a railway-truck bridge to Mexico and other projects. The paper notes that Tom DeLay has weighed in to push the same projects. Last February, the Regional Transportation Authority in Corpus Christi also found $120,000 in its strapped budget to hire Randy. Again, some local officials objected, wondering why they had to hire him when other lobbyists are already on the payroll. But that contract went through anyway.
In Reeves County, local officials hired Randy DeLay to lobby the Federal Bureau of Prisons to place inmates in their county’s privately run detention facility. He was paid $120,000 per year, plus expenses, to get federal prisoners placed in the Reeves County Detention Center. Even after the detention center won a three-year deal with the Bureau of Prisons, the county renewed DeLay’s contract again.
In Nueces County last year, officials proposed to award Randy DeLay a lucrative contract to protect the region’s military bases from being shut down by the Pentagon. He would have shared that one-year contract, worth $1.2 million, with former Bush aide and Federal Emergency Management Administration director Joe Allbaugh. (The two lobbyists said they “wanted to help Nueces County protect its bases from the latest round of closings as a way to give back to Texas.” Isn’t that special, too?)
That fat deal fell through, but some time later the DeLay brothers’ local congressional ally, a Democrat named Solomon Ortiz, explained why he had endorsed the lobbying scheme. Asked whether he had urged local officials to hire Randy DeLay, Ortiz told the Caller-Times that “you don’t advertise these things. The things these people were trying to do were tainted by disclosing them. There goes our big chances of getting help from sources that were willing to help.”
Willing to help — as those dedicated DeLay family members are always so eager to do — if the price is right.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.More Joe Conason.