Tainted conservative

Though charity may begin in the House, few have so brazenly blended the altruistic with the self-serving as Tom DeLay.

Published April 15, 2005 9:38PM (EDT)

"The time has come that the American people know exactly what their representatives are doing here in Washington. Are they feeding at the public trough, taking lobbyist-paid vacations, getting wined and dined by special-interest groups? Or are they working hard to represent their constituents? The people, the American people, have a right to know. I say the best disinfectant is full disclosure."

That populist polemic was delivered on the House floor in November 1995 by well-known reformer Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Now nationally notorious for his own lobbyist-paid luxury trips to Scotland, Russia and South Korea, among other places, where he has been wined and dined by a bewildering variety of special-interest groups, the House majority leader is no longer quite so strict about full disclosure, either. Even the trait often described as his most admirable -- his concern for abused children -- has been tainted by his penchant for backroom influence peddling.

Over the course of DeLay's political career, he and his wife, Christine, have adopted three foster children, raised millions of dollars for child-related charities, and spoken out in Washington on behalf of abused kids. The couple has won awards from various organizations and praise from such unlikely allies as Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Holmes Norton, all while improving the Hammer's otherwise dismally uncharitable image.

For the past 17 years the DeLays have also operated their own charitable outfit, the DeLay Foundation for Kids, which aims to raise $10 million to build the Oaks at Rio Bend, a special faith-based housing subdivision for a small number of foster families on 50 acres near Richmond, Texas. (Interestingly, the homes are to be constructed by Perry Homes, the company whose enormously wealthy founder, Bob Perry Jr., was the largest donor to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.) Evidently this activity allows DeLay to cut food stamps, children's health insurance, federal housing and tax credits for the poor while remaining certain that he is a compassionate conservative, doing God's work. According to DeLay, the intention of his charity's "biblical" project is "to show that you don't need a government program to take care of kids."

What you need instead is a powerful politician with enough influence over government to shake down big donors.

Of all the profound and petty offenses charged against DeLay, his use of a children's charity to aggrandize himself and raise money from lobbyists and corporations may be the most distasteful. The foundation has received comparatively less attention recently, perhaps because, as a registered charity, the details of its donors and operations are easily kept secret. This is a happy situation for DeLay, since his charitable and political operations continually blur into one another.

The foundation's fundraisers have included his former deputy chief of staff and a consulting outfit that worked for his political action committees. A spinoff foundation, known as Celebrations for Children, employed his daughter Dani DeLay Ferro (who is also paid by his political action and campaign committees) and two more Republican operatives associated with the Hammer's political machine. So far, most of the DeLay Foundation's spending has gone toward fundraising and administration, although ground was broken for the Oaks in September 2003.

Many observers regard the DeLay Foundation as a substitute destination for outlawed "soft money" donations, since companies and lobbyists can give unlimited amounts. Indeed, it may be even better than his old soft-money scams -- because the donors need not be identified publicly at all.

And almost none of them have been. Although DeLay has raised millions by hosting exclusive golf outings that attract lobbyists and members of Congress, none of the names of the generous donors has leaked out. Two years ago, when the DeLay Foundation held a three-day links junket at the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., Common Cause asked him to reveal the names of the donors as well as the amounts they were paying to entertain the majority leader and his colleagues.

That request was brushed aside by DeLay's office with what has now become a familiar refrain. A spokesman refused to reveal any of the donors and went on to accuse Common Cause chairman Fred Wertheimer, whose organization has regularly attacked Democrats as well as Republicans, of pursuing a "partisan vendetta."

Last year, DeLay was forced to cancel an ambitious series of charitable events to be held at the Republican Convention in New York, following a blast of public criticism over the grossness of the solicitations sent out to lobbyists and corporate donors. For donations ranging between $10,000 and $500,000, these potential benefactors of abused children were to be feted at an exclusive Long Island golf club, as well as provided with a yacht cruise, a VIP suite at the convention, and a special suite for viewing the president's acceptance speech. As the Houston Chronicle noted sourly at the time, the 13-page promotional brochure "had exactly one sentence mentioning abused and neglected children."

While that venture was abruptly canceled, DeLay hasn't stopped soliciting corporate interests to raise funds for his charity -- and himself -- at venues around the country. These events aren't publicized and in fact are rarely reported. Last August, for example, DeLay appeared at a luncheon in Lexington, Ky., hosted by Rep. Hal Rodgers, R-Ky., at which donors coughed up money for the DeLay legal defense fund, but this event wasn't reported in the local press until four months later.

Among those attending the Lexington luncheon was an executive of the Corrections Corporation of America, who handed the majority leader a $100,000 check made out to the DeLay Foundation for Kids. As the largest private prison contractor in America, CCA relies on the federal government to fill its prisons and its coffers, and is seeking to privatize the prison system in Texas, where DeLay has a bit of influence, too.

A spokeswoman for the company told the Lexington Herald-Leader that CCA gives to charities and politicians alike without any expectation of favors in return. In fact, those present at the DeLay luncheon were reportedly emotionally moved to see that big check being handed over.

Of course, Tom DeLay is not alone in using charity to advance his political agenda. Politicians of both parties do likewise, although few have quite so brazenly blended the altruistic with the self-serving. As with some of DeLay's other offenses, however, including the huge payments to his wife and daughter from his political committees, he does what others have done, but does it more, bigger and worse.

Republicans who are now distancing themselves from DeLay, such as Newt Gingrich and the editorialists at the Wall Street Journal, should urge him to observe the standards of disclosure they all advocated a decade ago. His constituents, and the rest of the country, deserve to know exactly who is paying so much to make him look good, and why.

By Joe Conason

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.

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Tom Delay