Tom DeLay keeps insisting that his numerous overseas trips with Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff didn't violate House ethics rules. When it comes to allegations about his aides, though, he appears to be somewhat less informed. The Associated Press reported today that documents from Abramoff's firm -- uncovered as part of the current criminal investigation of his lobbying -- indicate that he picked up the tab for trips that DeLay's aides made to the North Mariana Islands in 1996 and 1997.
House ethics rules in place at that time prohibited members of Congress and their staffs from accepting trips from lobbyists, and Abramoff knew it; in 1996, he sent an email asking the Northern Marianas government to reimburse him for the expenses as quickly as possible. "I ... expect to receive a call tomorrow or Tuesday from the House ethics committee, asking for an update as to the reimbursement situation and, possibly, our outstanding bill," Abramoff wrote. "They are watching the trips very closely." Asked by the AP about his aides' activities, DeLay's office said they didn't know Abramoff had paid for the trips.
DeLay is not the only member of Congress in the hot seat: Two Democratic Congressmen, Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and James Clyburn, D-S.C., also appear to have had their travel bills paid for by Abramoff around the same time. But Thompson and Clyburn don't have rap sheets like the House Majority Leader's; DeLay is the one whose subsequent trip to London and Scotland -- also charged to Abramoff's credit card -- is under investigation, whose payments to family members raised eyebrows last month, and whose unconventional approach to charitable giving looks awfully sub-par.
So who ultimately paid for the trips? Thompson and Clyburn said in disclosure reports that they were invited to the islands by the nonprofit National Security Caucus Foundation, and believed the nonprofit was paying. Gregg Hilton, the nonprofit's president at the time, believed the Marianas were paying. The latter is the explanation also given by DeLay's office -- which didn't bother with a disclosure report of its own, arguing that under House ethics rules it wasn't improper to "accept travel paid for by a governmental entity."
According to the AP, it remains unclear who actually paid for the trips. But whatever the case, say Abramoff's attorneys, "The tradition of lobbyists traveling with members of Congress to visit various jurisdictions so that they could learn about issues that impact the Congress and government policy is well known." Washington lawyer and ethics specialist Jan Baran said, however, that what's more well known is members of Congress pleading ignorance in cases like these: "If a member generally doesn't know what's going on, it's hard to see how the member would be held to violate ethics rules."
Meanwhile, DeLay's claiming ignorance doesn't seem to be doing much for his increasingly tainted image, even in his own backyard. A new SurveyUSA poll of voters in his Houston-area home district reveals that 51 percent of respondents disapprove of DeLay's job performance, and only 39 percent think he should keep his job as House Majority Leader.