Tom DeLay- Corporate Whore

DeLay politics may carry heavy price

By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

Over lunch at the Sunset Grove Country Club in Orange, Texas, businessman Pete Cloeren lamented to Rep. Tom DeLay that he couldn't do more to help his friend Brian Babin get elected to Congress. Cloeren had personally given all he was allowed, and the law wouldn't let him donate money from his plastics company.

Tom Delay addresses his supporters at a United for Delay rally in Houston.
By Jessica Kourkounis, AP

DeLay had a solution, Cloeren said. "There are ways we get money moved around the system," Cloeren recalls him saying. "He told us at the lunch table that this was done all the time."

The day after the lunch in 1996, Cloeren says, a DeLay aide called with instructions to donate to several out-of-state political committees and candidates. After Cloeren did so, those committees directed like amounts to Babin's campaign.

Cloeren later pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations, but the man he says advised him escaped any consequences. The Federal Election Commission dismissed Cloeren's complaint against DeLay for lack of evidence, and DeLay denied wrongdoing.

But the scenario Cloeren describes bears a striking similarity to transactions that have led to DeLay's indictment by two Texas grand juries in the past three weeks and his removal, at least temporarily, as House majority leader. One of the most effective House Republican leaders is sidelined as the chamber approaches crucial and difficult votes on spending cuts. DeLay is scheduled to make his first court appearance Friday in Austin.

"Based on the allegations, it seems that Tom DeLay has no problem with recommending the use of conduits to hide the source of money going to campaigns," said Larry Noble, director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which studies money in politics. Noble was chief counsel to the FEC at the time of Cloeren's complaint about DeLay. "He seems to be somebody who likes playing in the gray areas, and occasionally stepping over the line."

DeLay maintains he has never done anything wrong and calls the charges "blatant political partisanship" by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. "I am innocent," he says. "Mr. Earle and his staff know it. And I will prove it."

DeLay's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, charged Monday in a letter to Earle that the prosecutor had "tried to coerce a guilty plea" from his client to a misdemeanor, under the threat that if he didn't do it he would face a felony indictment.

From a base in suburban Houston, DeLay has raised money and used his power to redraw the Texas political map. The same aggressiveness that has landed him in legal trouble has given him an impressive list of friends in high places. His former protégé Dennis Hastert is speaker of the House of Representatives. Many House members owe their elections to his financial help. Former DeLay aides occupy powerful posts in and outside government — which helps explain why DeLay is so defiant in the face of trouble.

That trouble includes two indictments in Texas, for alleged money laundering and conspiracy, in connection with fundraising to help elect Republicans to the state Legislature. He also figures in the activities of Jack Abramoff and former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, lobbyists under federal investigation for allegedly defrauding Indian tribes out of millions of dollars.

Lucrative networking

At his moment of legal and political peril, DeLay can count on a wide and influential network of allies — critics such as the group Common Cause call it "DeLay Inc." — sprinkled throughout Texas and, especially, the nation's capital.

Four of every five House Republicans have received campaign contributions from DeLay, and he has traveled across the country to raise millions more. DeLay's absence as the No. 2 House leader is being treated by his colleagues as temporary, until his legal situation is resolved.

His former aides are in powerful posts throughout Washington. Former chiefs of staff are prominent lobbyists, including Tim Berry, who just went to work for Time Warner. Other former aides represent top corporations — FedEx, Verizon, Microsoft, Pfizer, Motorola, Walt Disney, ChevronTexaco — and key trade groups.

The former aides multiply DeLay's clout by steering money from their wealthy clients to help DeLay and GOP causes. In 2002, former DeLay legislative director Drew Maloney, a lobbyist, rounded up $152,500 from energy corporations for DeLay's leadership PAC. The money bought entree to an exclusive golf outing at the Homestead resort in western Virginia, as Congress was putting the final touches on a major energy bill, according to records compiled for a House ethics investigation.

Lobbyist Richard Bornemann described the need to donate in a confidential memo to his client, the electric utility Western Resources (now Westar Energy): "The most beneficial way to spend corporate dollars — as opposed to cutting personal or PAC (political action committee) checks — is with the House leadership. That means joining the fold, so to speak, of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay." The memo was posted on the House ethics committee's website.

"DeLay knows that reciprocity is the strongest norm in Washington," said James Thurber of American University. "The clients know they have a relationship and that they have to come up with the money. It's very clear to them, and they do it."

"He is very good at keeping people as part of his extended family," said Stuart Roy, a former DeLay spokesman who is at the lobbying firm DCI Group. "It gives him additional reach and additional eyes and ears."

The reach of DeLay's influence was no accident. With GOP anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, he created the K Street Project, named after the downtown Washington corridor that is home to many lobbying firms. The project places Republicans in high-paying, high-powered lobbying jobs with access to top officials in the corporate and political worlds.

Since Republicans captured House control in 1994, the effort has remade the capital's lobbying culture — which had been tilted toward Democrats after decades of that party's domination of Congress — in a more Republican mold.

Fundraiser and concierge

To a degree matched by few politicians, DeLay saw fundraising as a tool to build and cement his support in Washington.

In the mid-'90s he was among the first to set up a separate fundraising committee, known as a leadership PAC, that allowed him to collect money to fund his political activities and give to fellow Republicans. The move allowed him to in effect collect twice from a long list of business interests. Eleven of the top 20 donors to his campaign committee and leadership PAC are the same, including the National Restaurant Association, Union Pacific, UPS, Fluor Corp. and the Realtors.

He also leaned on businesses to tilt their giving more to the GOP, keeping a list of how much various interests gave to each party. "He has sent a loud message to the people who raise and give political money that the Democrats are no longer in charge," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota.

DeLay also instituted a program to introduce his K Street friends to politically vulnerable Republicans. The politicians usually walk away from the "Retain our Majority Program" with an extra $100,000 for their campaigns.

In 2000, DeLay donated $150,000 from his leadership PAC to a similar committee set up in Missouri by Rep. Roy Blunt, whom he had just elevated to be his chief deputy. Blunt has followed DeLay up the leadership ladder and holds the majority leader title while his former boss deals with his legal problems.

DeLay spends money in other ways that solidify his network, including for the care and feeding of Republicans. Lobbyist Dan Mattoon recalled that at the Republican Convention in Houston in 1992, DeLay arranged for cars and drivers to ferry House members around the sprawling city.

"Tom understood what members' needs are," Mattoon said. "He found a way to make them more comfortable and willing to follow the leadership."

As the chief vote-counter in the House, he routinely set up buffets in his Capitol office during late-night legislative sessions, where Republicans could grab Chinese food, some barbecue or pizza. The gatherings made his office a center of social activity and an information depot.

For the convention in Philadelphia in 2000, DeLay took his concierge role to a new level, setting up a fenced-off camp of vintage rail cars loaned by Union Pacific and collecting money from corporate sponsors to lavish food and drinks on House Republicans — and the lobbyists who were picking up the tab. Corporate sponsors included Enron, UPS and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

The Indian tribe's donation is evidence of yet another link in DeLay's network, and one that looms as a major problem: Lobbyists Abramoff and Scanlon are under federal investigation for their activities on behalf of tribes with gambling operations, including the Mississippi Choctaws, for which they billed the tribes $82 million.

DeLay took at least three trips with Abramoff — to play golf in Scotland, to Russia and to the Northern Mariana Islands. There is evidence that lobbyists or foreign interests picked up some or all of the travel costs, which would be a violation of House ethics rules.

DeLay's lasting mark on Washington — his hardball politics, envelope-pushing fundraising and building of Republican dominance — have come at a price, says Mike Johnson, a lobbyist and former GOP leadership aide in the House.

"What he has brought to the process is that Texas-sized bravado and hubris — that you do things bigger and better and faster than before to accomplish your mission," he said. "That attracts attention, but it also attracts gunfire."

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