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No want of a nail

Politics | House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is a scandalmonger's dream

Issue: "The fewer and the proud," April 23, 2005

Capitol Hill denizens know House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as "the Hammer"-but recently he's been more like a nail. For the past two years, Democrats have pounded away at the Republican congressman from Texas, alleging shady dealings and ethics violations.

Democrats say Mr. DeLay, the second-most-prominent member of the House behind Speaker Denny Hastert, has abused power. For his part, Mr. DeLay has asked House and Senate Republicans to back him, and many have. Now, with even more ethical questions swirling, Mr. DeLay is poised for the political fight of his life. His question: Can he extinguish suspicions of wrongdoing or will the parade of scandals eventually take him down?

Mr. DeLay's trouble is multifaceted. Press reports suggest he took trips paid for by lobbyists, but indirect trip-backing is a common practice in Washington and there's no proof of anything beyond that. He's also been criticized for taking a trip to South Korea sponsored by a government agent, though he says he didn't know the group had changed its status. The New York Times charged Mr. DeLay with putting his wife and daughter on the payroll: He doesn't deny it; the Federal Election Commission says family members of lawmakers can work for political organizations as long as they are fairly compensated for their work, and that's also common in Washington.

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Whether those practices should be common over a decade after Republicans gained a House majority, in part through a clean-up-Washington campaign, is a good question. But Mr. DeLay could face the most trouble 1,300 miles away from Washington, in Austin, Texas. There, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has indicted three officials of Mr. DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC) and eight other corporate donors. In the charges, Mr. Earle points to corporate soft money used by TRMPAC to pay for consulting, polling, fundraising, and telemarketing.

That's significant because a nearly 100-year-old Texas statute forbids Texas political action committees from spending corporate cash on anything but overhead expenses. Traditionally, "overhead" has been interpreted to mean things like rent and utility bills. Yet a TRMPAC brochure tells corporate donors that "your corporate contribution to TRMPAC will be put to productive use. Rather than just paying for overhead, your support will fund a series of productive and innovative activities designed to increase our level of engagement in the political arena." Texas law prohibits spending for political purposes corporate donations to political action committees.

Embarrassing memos and e-mails have become public discussion fodder during Mr. Earle's investigation. Fundraisers for TRMPAC wrote openly about the link between corporate donors and pending legislation. "What companies that you know of would be interested in tort reform in Texas with asbestos problems that might support TRMPAC?" wrote one TRMPAC official in a memo.

Even corporations with no apparent interest in Texas politics were donating to Mr. DeLay's TRMPAC. Records show a Kansas firm, Westar Energy, paid $25,000 of soft money into TRMPAC's coffers. According to e-mails from 2002 released after Westar conducted an internal investigation, company officials thought they were buying influence in the U.S. House to block Kansas officials from stopping a Westar transfer of debt to its electricity consumers. "We have a plan for participation to get a seat at the table," the May 20 e-mail between Westar officials said. "The total of the package will be $31,500 in hard money (individual), and $25,000 in soft money (corporate)."

The e-mail singled out Mr. DeLay: "His agreement is necessary before the House Conferees can push the language we have in place in the House bill." In May 2002, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a DeLay acolyte and Westar target (according to the e-mail), pushed for Westar's exemption during House and Senate negotiations on the energy bill. A spokesman for Mr. DeLay did not respond to interview requests. Usually slow to act, the House Ethics Committee has already admonished Mr. DeLay three times for giving Westar Energy special influence, trying to sell political support in exchange for a yes vote on the prescription drug bill, and using federal resources for partisan political purposes.

Democrats, who are devising plans to retake the House of Representatives in 2006, have perhaps settled on a theme, with Mr. DeLay to thank. They want to tell the story of a corrupted Republican Congress with Mr. DeLay as the story's face. In a statement following her press conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) chided Republicans and specifically Mr. DeLay for going back on promises to end the cycle of scandal and disgrace in 1994: "Instead of sticking to their word, they have broken their promises, betrayed the public trust, and abused their power."

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