Broken Hammer?

Recent revelations of huge sums paid to family members have stung the GOP majority leader. But Tom DeLay was damaged goods long before that.

Published April 8, 2005 7:57PM (EDT)

The laws of political gravity don't seem to apply to Tom DeLay. If they did, the burden of scandal he bears would have sunk him long ago -- and recently things have gotten even worse for the Republican majority leader from Texas. In the week before congressional Republicans made their rash intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, the Washington Post ran no fewer than seven Page One stories about DeLay. The only story that didn't directly connect DeLay to scandal ran under the headline "DeLay Treated for Irregular Heartbeat." More critical reporting followed after Schiavo's death, while DeLay and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, implied that judges had killed her.

The most recent stories about DeLay include accounts of:

  • A $106,921 educational and golfing trip that DeLay, his wife and staff took to Korea on the tab of a registered foreign agent -- a violation of House rules. (The money was funneled through a Washington tax-exempt group and the trip arranged by longtime DeLay associate Jack Abramoff.)
  • A $70,000 golfing trip DeLay took to England and Scotland, paid for by lobbyists and $50,000 solicited from two Indian tribes. (The Indian money was solicited by Abramoff and moved through a Washington think tank he worked with.)
  • A $57,238 golfing trip to Moscow, underwritten by a Russian lobbying firm hired by a Russian oil and gas company trying to cultivate support in the U.S. Congress. (The money was funneled through the same Washington think tank connected to Abramoff, who traveled to Moscow with DeLay. The trip was arranged by the Rev. Ed Buckham, a lobbyist and former DeLay staffer and spiritual advisor, who also traveled with DeLay to Russia and Korea.)
  • Approximately $500,000 in political money paid as salaries to DeLay's wife, Christine, and his daughter, Danni Ferro.

    It was not a good news week for "the Hammer." But DeLay was damaged goods six months before any of these stories were reported. He had been admonished by the House Ethics Committee three times in the course of one month last year -- a record for unincarcerated members of the House. Three political operatives (one a close associate) who run a Texas political action committee DeLay set up in 2001 are under indictment in Texas -- one of them facing a 99-year sentence. Eight corporations have also been indicted for alleged illegal contributions to DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC).

    As was first reported here, DeLay himself accepted a $25,000 TRMPAC contribution from a Reliant Energy Corp. lobbyist. (The lobbyist, Drew Maloney, had served on DeLay's House staff before moving on to K Street.) Previously I reported that the Williams Cos., one of the eight corporations under indictment in Texas, had addressed to "Congressman Tom DeLay" a letter conveying "$25,000 for the TRMPAC that we pledged at the June 2, 2002 fundraiser." (Contributing or accepting corporate money for use in a political campaign is against Texas law.)

    This month a state district judge in Austin will hand down his decision in a civil case filed by five Democratic state house candidates targeted by DeLay's PAC in the 2002 election. (For an account of that trial and a look at documents that will ultimately be introduced in the TRMPAC criminal trial, see Jake Bernstein's article,"TRMPAC in Its Own Words," in the April 1 issue of the Texas Observer. Bernstein and his colleague Dave Mann previously broke a pay-to-play story in which TRMPAC fundraisers offered donors specific legislation in return for their contributions.)

    While DeLay's lawyers and political advisors in Washington nervously await a decision in the civil case involving TRMPAC, they also wonder if the other boot will drop in Texas. That is, will Travis District Attorney Ronnie Earle indict DeLay? The jury (or at least the grand jury) is still out on that one.

    But DeLay also has big problems in Washington, where Abramoff and DeLay's former press aide Mike Scanlon, face not one but three separate investigations for an $82 million fraudulent billing scheme that involves six casino-rich Indian tribes.

    How, then, does Tom DeLay hang on to power?

    The answer to that question involves the two constituencies most indebted to Tom DeLay: The Republican members of the House who selected him to lead them in 2003 and (for the moment) continue to support him; and the Republican campaign and advocacy groups enriched by huge contributions from the same corporate lobbyists and clients who pick up the tab for DeLay, his family and staff to play golf in American Saipan, Scotland, England and Russia.

    The loyalty of House Republicans can be traced to 1994. Though he is routinely linked to Newt Gingrich, whose reform movement that same year promised to sweep corrupt Democrats from power, DeLay was never one of Newt's revolutionaries. He had worked on the campaign of Ed Madigan, whom Gingrich defeated in a race for minority whip when Dick Cheney left the House to take a position in the administration of the first President Bush in 1989. Cheney had made DeLay a deputy whip. After DeLay backed Gingrich's opponent in the whip race, Gingrich shut him out of the House leadership.

    By 1994, DeLay was back in the game. He formed a political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), and raised $780,000 to invest in Republican House races. Gingrich surpassed him, raising $1.5 million, but DeLay had a second funding source -- lobbyists. By his own admission, in that election he directed more than $2 million in lobby money to Republican candidates. The $2,780,000 bought him the loyalty of the most conservative congressional class elected in modern times.

    Since then, he has raised more political money than any other member of Congress and shrewdly spent it on House campaigns to build what he openly calls "a permanent Republican majority." By 2003, when he was at the top of his game and didn't have to compete with his own legal defense fund, DeLay was raising $12,785 a day, according to a report released by the campaign-finance reform group Democracy 21. Today, in a city where size matters, DeLay has a bigger PAC than House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Roy Blunt, both of whom came into House leadership as lieutenants on DeLay's whip team.

    Hastert is particularly indebted to DeLay. He ran DeLay's 1995 whip campaign and served as chief deputy whip while DeLay held that office. In 1998 DeLay used his 67-member whip organization to make Hastert speaker, after DeLay's first choice to replace a disgraced Gingrich, Bob Livingston, quit the race when details about his marital infidelity were reported. DeLay has bought and paid for the loyalty of the House.

    DeLay's lobby operation is more complicated but equally important to Republican Party hegemony. As described by American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein, the K Street Project by which DeLay domesticated the corporate lobby is a "Tammany Hall operation" that ensures only Republicans are hired for big lobbying jobs that pay as much as $1 million a year. Once hired, "everyone is expected to contribute some of that money back into Republican campaigns," Ornstein told me when I was working on a book on DeLay last year. According to Ornstein, DeLay and the K Street project have even locked up the entry-level lobby positions that pay from $150,000 to $250,000 a year -- with the understanding that anyone who gets a job "maxes out" in contributions to Republican candidates and campaigns.

    DeLay laid the groundwork for the K Street project by calling corporate lobbyists into his office after he was elected whip in 1995. He sat them down and pointed to their names in a ledger that included contributions they had made to Democrats and Republicans. Then he reminded them that Republicans were in charge and their political giving had better reflect that -- or else. The "or else" was a threat to cut off access to the Republican House leadership.

    By 1998, DeLay was telling K Street lobbying firms and trade associations they could hire no more Democrats. To underscore his point, he pulled an important intellectual-property rights bill off the House floor when the Electronics Industries Alliance hired former Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma. For this act DeLay was privately reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee. But he made his point. The fat lobby positions were henceforth reserved for Republicans. (The EIA refused to back down but negotiated a deal by which it would hire a Republican to work with McCurdy.)

    DeLay and the House leadership would later summon lobbyists it had put in positions of power on K Street and order them to work on behalf of the Republican agenda -- including the G.W. Bush tax cuts. So corporate lobbyists became an extension of the Republican whip operation in the House. And, significantly, a profit center for the Republican Party and its ancillary advocacy groups.

    The junkets involving Tom DeLay, his wife, his staff and former staffers, are the perks the majority leader has earned for putting this huge funding operation in the field. DeLay has been traveling on the lobby tab for a decade now. But a year ago, two DeLay loyalists created a problem that might be more than even he can manage. The recent scandal involving DeLay's longtime associate and fundraiser Jack Abramoff, and DeLay's former press aide Mike Scanlon, provide a small glimpse into a huge and potentially scandalous Republican operation used to funnel lobby money, and money squeezed out of lobbyists' clients, into accounts controlled by the party.

    In the recent Indian gaming scandal, Abramoff and Scanlon sold Tom DeLay's operation to American Indian tribes desperate to protect their gambling operations, according to sources I talked to on three reservations. As proof of DeLay's clout, Abramoff and Scanlon pointed to his role in killing a bill that threatened Indian gaming in 2001. In total, they billed the Indians an astonishing $82 million, more than twice what corporate clients such as General Electric paid for contract lobbying in the same three-year period. Once the two lobbyists established a revenue stream that provided for personal enrichment unlike anything they had ever imagined, they began paying what Sicilians call tributo to the people and organizations who made it all possible.

    For example, Abramoff raised $200,000 for George Bush's presidential campaign and donated hundreds of thousands to other Republican candidates. Scanlon, who was paying off college loans when he left DeLay's press office in 1999, contributed $500,000 to the Republican national governors' organization in 2002 -- the largest individual contribution the group received that year.

    Abramoff directed the Coushatta Tribe of southwestern Louisiana to contribute $100,000 to an environmental group set up by Gale Norton while she was secretary of the interior. He had the Coushattas donate $20,000 to DeLay's Washington PAC. And $25,000 to Republican anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. (In return, the Coushattas got an invitation to a Norquist fundraiser held at the White House.) Suddenly, American Indian tribes that had traditionally made modest political contributions to Democrats were making huge contributions to Republicans. (The two lobbyists had no interest in dirt-poor Plains Indian tribes that operated no casinos.)

    So one lobbying organization that got too greedy threatens to sink DeLay's K Street operation -- and DeLay with it. When the remarkable reporting of Shawn Martin of the American Press in Lake Charles, La., made its way to the front page of the Washington Post, the majority leader was confronted with a crisis he couldn't manage.

    To keep things under control for the moment, Hastert has replaced errant Republican members of the Ethics Committee who voted to admonish DeLay with one of his loyalists and two members who had contributed to DeLay's legal defense fund. To further protect DeLay (and perhaps Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, who took a $50,000 Scottish golf trip paid for Indians while he promised to carry a bill for a Texas tribe), Hastert changed the rule that required investigations to automatically begin 45 days after any member of the House files a complaint. An Ethics Committee investigation now requires a majority vote, and the committee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

    A year ago, Sen. John McCain began an aggressive Senate Indian Affairs investigation of Abramoff and Scanlon, which included the release of 100 pages of their internal documents, several of which indicated DeLay's involvement. Recently, when it was reported that one Indian tribe had written $25,000 checks to Republican Sens. Sam Brownback and Conrad Burns, McCain reassured his colleagues that his investigation would be limited to the lobbyists -- not members of Congress.

    DeLay can control the Congress. But he has problems with the courts and the press. Abramoff and Scanlon are also under investigation by two federal grand juries and a FBI task force that includes three other federal agencies. The Indian tribes are pursuing their own lawsuits. Criminal trials of DeLay's Texas operatives will probably begin in the summer. DeLay's two TRMPAC operatives also face a civil suit, as soon as they get their criminal proceeding behind them. Litigation provides journalists documents they can never otherwise obtain because, unlike lawyers, they have no subpoena power. The nation's big news organizations are following paper trails to various DeLay scandals. The majority leader is beginning to look like a bad story about to break every week.

    Will DeLay survive? He brings in millions of dollars and is an indefatigable party builder who last year added six Texas seats to the Republican House majority by redrawing congressional district lines in Texas. So it's hard for House Republicans to say goodbye. But as DeLay's name becomes synonymous with political corruption, they might have no choice. If the party decides DeLay is too much a liability to carry into the off-year elections, a delegation of his colleagues will pay him a visit at his Capitol office just off Statuary Hall and thank him for all he's done for the party.

  • By Lou Dubose

    Lou Dubose is editor of the Washington Spectator, and author of "Boy Genius," a political biography of Karl Rove.

    MORE FROM Lou Dubose

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Republican Party Tom Delay