Tapes reveal FAA scrambling for DeLay power play

By Farhad Manjoo
Published October 22, 2004 9:07PM (EDT)

Did Tom DeLay misuse federal resources when he called on the FAA to track down the plane used by Texas Democrats fleeing the state over his scary redistricting plans? A House ethics panel has concluded that he did, and this week the man they call the Hammer was served with a subpoena to testify about the matter in a civil suit brought by Texas Democrats. DeLay still insists he did no wrong, though. "It's a frivolous matter that's already been rendered moot," his spokesman said in dismissing news of the subpoena.

But recently released audio recordings of phone calls between FAA personnel responding to DeLay's request tell a different story. The recordings, which were obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil-liberties advocacy group, show several FAA officials wrestling with DeLay's May 2003 call to track down the Texas plane, a single-engine Piper Cherokee owned by Texas State Representative Pete Laney. Listening to the recordings, you hear concern, diligence, and annoyance as the officials scramble to respond to DeLay's call; the FAA people clearly didn't consider the matter frivolous.

Indeed, the officials, who were not made aware of the reason for tracking down the plane, seem to think that they're working on some kind of formal Congressional inquiry, something pretty important. One poor guy, Gene Marx, an FAA official at the Washington Headquarters Comm Center, was charged with looking for the plane's movements over the previous few days. On the recordings, you hear the half dozen calls he makes to FAA centers around the country, seeing if they can get a read on the plane. On the phone, he's clearly frustrated. He doesn't know anything about the plane in question, just its "tail number" -- 711RD -- and that he's responding to some kind of important Congressional mandate. At one point, an FAA operator asks him to name the pilot of the plane. "You know, I don't even know," he huffs. "I just made the mistake of answering the phone here." Then he's put on hold for a few minutes, subjected to elevator pop (the Kenny G and Chante Moore track "One More Time.") In the end, due to the cumbersomeness of the FAA's computer system, he discovers nothing about the plane's movements.

It's probably a stretch to say, as some Democrats have, that in responding to DeLay's call the FAA was pulled away from the important business of defending against a terrorist threat. The recordings don't show the FAA officials to be setting aside important work to work on DeLay's assignment, and the phone calls, in total, only take up about 20 minutes or so. What's striking, though, is the degree to which the aviation bureaucracy had to mobilize to satisfy DeLay. People all over the country were put on the task, and none of them considered it a small matter. To them, it was important congressional business -- none of them knew that they were simply aiding a self-satisfied Texas Congressman's abuse of power.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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