|Tom DeLay- Corporate Whore|
The G.O.P. leader's troubles mount, with new questions about his dealings with the former aide who helped build his political machine
By KAREN TUMULTY
Ed Buckham's name was one you didn't hear much outside the secluded corridor where he worked on the first floor of the Capitol. But in that suite, which houses the majority whip's offices, Buckham was far more than an ordinary congressional aide in the three heady years following the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Thanks to an unusually close and trusting relationship with his boss, Tom DeLay's chief of staff quietly became one of the most powerful people in Washington. "He was the guy DeLay turned to when he made a final decision," recalls a former aide to a member of the House Republican leadership, "and even after he made the final decision, the guy who could talk him out of it." What even fewer people outside that office knew was that the two shared a bond that transcended power and politics: Buckham, a licensed nondenominational minister, was also DeLay's pastor. For a while, in DeLay's early days as whip, they organized daily voluntary prayer sessions for the staff—until it began making some aides uncomfortable. After that, according to two sources who worked in the office at the time, the two of them frequently prayed together privately, joining hands in DeLay's office.
Buckham shared not only DeLay's religious faith but also his audacious vision for harnessing the financial and political clout of business and conservative interests to carry out the G.O.P. agenda and increase its majority in Congress. DeLay offered lobbyists the best seats they had ever had at the table, a say in legislative and political strategy, on the understanding that they in return would pour millions into DeLay's favored causes and candidates. In addition, he threatened to shut out lobbying shops that employed Democrats. In Washington that seamless coordination between his office and the lobbying corridor of K Street has become known as DeLay Inc. It developed the muscle to push or block pretty much everything DeLay asked for, from protecting tax breaks for low-wage garment manufacturers on the Northern Mariana Islands (where DeLay spent New Year's Day 1998 with his wife and Buckham) to creating a Medicare prescription-drug plan that critics say is a better deal for pharmaceutical companies than it is for seniors.
Now the machinery that DeLay and his pastor built threatens to derail DeLay. He was slapped three times last year by the House ethics committee for violations of House rules, and finds himself potentially facing more serious trouble on multiple fronts. Each day seems to bring another embarrassing headline and more lawmakers' being caught up in allegations of impropriety that surround the lobbyists—many, like Buckham, former DeLay staff members—who have traded on their access to him. The Washington Post reported last week that DeLay (as well as six other Representatives from both parties and several congressional aides) had over the past four years accepted trips to South Korea, paid for by a registered foreign agent—a violation of House rules.
As it happens, the foreign agent in question—a group called the Korea- U.S. Exchange Council, funded largely by the Korean holding company Hanwha Group—lists its address as the same waterfront Georgetown office suite as Buckham's lobbying business. Edward Stewart, who not only manages international business for Buckham's Alexander Strategy Group but also is the Korean group's Washington representative, declined to comment on the controversy. Buckham, 46, did not return telephone calls and e-mails seeking an interview. The lawmakers named by the Post, including DeLay, say they were not aware that the group was a foreign agent. Indeed, it didn't register as one until three days before DeLay left for his trip to South Korea in August 2001.
Where the controversy goes from here is difficult to say. DeLay's increasingly precarious situation has paralyzed the House ethics committee. Democrats on the committee, one of the few in Congress in which they have as many votes as Republicans do, have shut it down.
The Democrats refuse to accept a new rule that would prevent the committee from launching any investigation without the support of at least one Republican—a restriction designed to protect the majority leader. The strain is showing on DeLay, who was treated in a hospital last week for fatigue and an irregular heartbeat. And for the first time, a significant number of Republicans have begun to question DeLay's political survival. Frets a senior G.O.P. Congressman about the odor surrounding DeLay: "It just isn't going away."
The political operation that DeLay and Buckham built pushed hard against the boundaries of campaign-finance laws—and on occasion overstepped them. The National Republican Congressional Committee agreed last year to pay a $280,000 fine for improperly transferring $500,000 in 1999 to an outside organization to run radio ads against Democrats. Buckham had convinced the Republican Party to make the donation to the group. Although he maintained that he was merely a fund raiser for the organization, his wife was on its payroll (earning $59,000 in 1997), its truck was registered at his residence, and his lobbying business operated at the time from a town house the group owned. Democrats, howling that the whole operation was a front for DeLay's political machine, filed a racketeering lawsuit against the whip. They later settled, after DeLay spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
DeLay has been neither apologetic nor subtle about his coziness with the corporate and ideological groups that have business before Congress. "It's in their interest to keep a Republican majority, and it's a way to keep a Republican majority and get our job done," he told the Washington Post in 1999. "It's sort of, 'Scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.'" DeLay was so effective at getting his way that he became known as "the Hammer," and as he rose a notch in ranks to majority leader, the question everyone asked was not whether but when he would achieve his dream of becoming Speaker of the House.
Buckham, originally from Nashville, Tenn., had come a long way from his first job on Capitol Hill, as an intern in the early 1980s, clipping newspapers and fetching coffee for the staff of the Senate Republican policy committee. He got to know DeLay during a seven-year hitch as executive director of the House Republican study committee, which was something of an idea factory for the G.O.P. during its wilderness days of what then seemed like perpetual minority status in the House. Together DeLay and Buckham worked to push their party to the right on issues like taxes, welfare and federal regulatory policy. When the Republicans took control of the House, Buckham moved over to DeLay's whip's office, staying three years before he announced he needed to spend more time with his wife and four children.
But even at an official distance, while Buckham built his own operation, he became more deeply involved than ever with DeLay.
"[Buckham] was always there, ever present," recalls a former aide to then Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose office never completely trusted DeLay's. Buckham put DeLay's wife Christine on the payroll of his thriving Alexander Strategy Group from 1998 to 2002, according to DeLay's financial-disclosure forms. Buckham also hired Tony Rudy—who had been DeLay's press secretary, policy director, deputy chief of staff and general counsel—as well as Karl Gallant, who had served as executive director of DeLay's political-action committee. Buckham's firm has a long and lucrative client list, which, according to its website, includes the American Bankers Association, BellSouth, Eli Lilly, Fannie Mae, R.J. Reynolds and Time Warner (parent of this magazine).
For most Republicans, the occasional controversy used to seem a small price to pay for the prodigious amounts that DeLay was raising and contributing to their campaigns. Had it not been for the six additional seats that Texas picked up in the House last year, thanks to a redistricting plan engineered by DeLay, George W. Bush would not have been the first re-elected President since F.D.R. to gain seats in Congress. And DeLay has always been solicitous of G.O.P.
Representatives as individuals—adjusting the House schedule to accommodate a daughter's recital, knowing who needs a place to smoke and who is having a family crisis, making sure there is pizza in his office to tide members over during late-night votes. Given the majority leader's high profile in the intensely partisan atmosphere of the House, many Republicans agree with DeLay spokesman Dan Allen that attacks to some extent "come with the territory."
But much of the goodwill toward DeLay has begun to evaporate over the past year, as controversies have piled up like bricks in a wall around him. A Texas grand jury is examining allegations that one of his committees sent illegal corporate contributions to Republican candidates in 2002 legislative races there. In September it handed up indictments for three people, including the head of DeLay's political-action committee, and Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle has not ruled out the possibility of charges against DeLay.
Then there is the spreading scandal around high-flying lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a former producer of low-budget movies whose most marketable asset was access to DeLay. Here, too, Buckham appears to have played a key role. "How did Jack Abramoff get into Tom DeLay's office?" asks a source close to the majority leader. "Ed Buckham."
Abramoff and former DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon are being investigated by the Senate and Justice Department for allegedly defrauding Indian tribes that had hired them as lobbyists. Abramoff and Scanlon refused to comment at Senate hearings last year and have denied wrongdoing. The two are suspected of convincing the tribes to spend vast amounts on such extravagances as basketball-arena skyboxes for parties for members of Congress and their staffs. The pair may have violated tax or criminal laws in their lobbying efforts and have also involved members of Congress, including California Representative John Doolittle and Arizona Representative J.D. Hayworth, who used the skyboxes but did not report their use as campaign donations, as required by law. DeLay and a number of other lawmakers are in hot water as well for accepting Abramoff-arranged foreign golfing junkets, including one to Scotland's fabled St. Andrews course.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that DeLay's trip was indirectly financed by Indian tribes and gambling interests through payments to a nonprofit policy group that was sponsoring the trip. House rules would have prohibited direct payment. Most of the politicians who took trips organized by Abramoff claim they thought the junkets were paid for by charities or policy groups.
Even DeLay's efforts to defend himself have become tangled up in controversy. In December his legal-defense fund—which over the past four years has raised nearly $1 million in donations from corporations ranging from tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds and Reliant Energy to Domino's Pizza, as well as more than $300,000 from fellow members of Congress—was forced to return funds from registered lobbyists because those contributions violate House ethics rules.
But what has most angered Representatives about DeLay was a vote he engineered in December in the House Republican conference to change its rules so that G.O.P. congressional leaders could keep their posts even if they were indicted for a crime—a move that was clearly designed to protect his power if the Texas case took a bad turn. The move blindsided even Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. The conference withdrew the change in the ensuing political firestorm but left in place the proposal, now being opposed by Democrats, that would make it impossible for the ethics committee to launch an investigation against any Representatives without a majority vote.
So, will DeLay survive? Capitol Hill has seen a fair share of its leaders fall to scandal over the past 15 years or so, and insiders will tell you there are signs to watch for. While a sense of foreboding is undeniably in the air, Republicans still seem fairly solidly behind the leader to whom they owe so much. "With Tom, it's going to have to be more than just allegations. Tom has done so much fund raising," says Indiana Representative Mark Souder. But he acknowledges, "There's a general feeling from all of us that Tom could be more careful. The accumulation of Mariana Islands, Korea, the stuff in Texas has some people wringing their hands more than others."
After the debacle over the ethics rules, more than a few House members say they can ill afford to put their necks out much farther for DeLay. And their support could erode further—and quickly—if they start hearing complaints about DeLay from their constituents at home. "As members head home, they'll review the various media reports," says Arizona's Hayworth, who has been burned by revelations that he used a skybox supplied by Abramoff for fund raising. "I'm sure that it's in the best interest of the majority leader and the majority to have an accounting of what transpired."
A more ominous sign for DeLay: those who might succeed him have begun quietly positioning themselves to make a move if the opportunity arises, sources say. Among the possible successors most frequently mentioned are majority whip Roy Blount of Missouri, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Reynolds of New York, House Education Committee chairman John Boehner and leadership chairman Rob Portman of Ohio. Not so long ago, it looked as though the speakership would be DeLay's for the taking after Hastert left the post, probably after the next election. But if DeLay is doing any praying in his office these days, it's probably to hold on to the job he has.
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