Tom Delay: Poster Boy for the New Republican Party

[In light of Tom Delay's November 24, 2010 conviction on money-laundering and conspiracy charges, The Dubya Report invites readers to review our profile of the one-time Republican leader, originally published April 20, 2005.]

Updated April 4, 2006

At a weekly Republican policy lunch in the Senate Mansfield Room in early April, Tom DeLay rose to declare to his colleagues that he was the victim of a Democratic conspiracy, blaming financier George Soros and the grass-roots group for his woes. The GOP agenda was in danger, DeLay reportedly said, because Democrats funded by Soros were targeting him in attempt to keep the party from making progress on its initiatives.

A letter to Houston-area voters blamed a "syndicate" of Democrats, advocacy groups and a "legion of Democrat-friendly press."

In recent days, however, DeLay has come under criticism from within his own party, and in the editorial pages of journals from across the political spectrum, including the Wall Street Journal.

Chris Shays, a moderate Republican Congressman from Connecticut was the first Republican to call for DeLay to step down. "I think he's hurting the Congress," Shays said. "I think he's hurting the Republican majority and I think he's hurting individual Republicans who are up for re-election...."

"If he chose to resign as majority leader until these matters are resolved, that's probably not the worst idea," Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, a conservative, told the Denver Post.
"I don't think we should try to oust him," Tancredo said, but stepping aside "may be a productive move."

Sen. Rick Santorum, a leading Republican conservative, said on ABC News "This Week" that he thought DeLay needed to "lay out what he did and why he did it." Asked about reports that DeLay's family members were on PAC payrolls, and that he had taken trips financed by lobbyists, Santorum said " "If those things were not out there, obviously they wouldn't be raising them.... And so there are issues that he has to deal with personally."

On April 12, Newt Gingrich told CBS's Gloria Borger, " the burden is on [DeLay] to prove" his innocence," adding "I think the jury's out." "DeLay's problem isn't with the Democrats; DeLay's problem is with the country," Gingrich said. "And so DeLay has a challenge: to lay out a case that the country comes to believe, that the country decides is legitimate...."

The White House itself seemed to vacillate. On Monday April 11, White House spokesman Scot McClellan described DeLay and Bush as friends. "Majority Leader DeLay is someone the president considers a friend," he said. "The president looks forward to continuing to work closely with the majority leader to get things done on behalf of the American people." By midweek, however, McClellan appeared to be trying to distance Bush from DeLay, saying they were not close friends. "I think there are different levels of friendship with anybody," he said.

Then, as first reported, and was subsequently picked up by Editor and Publisher, numerous newspapers that endorsed George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign have criticized or questioned DeLay recently in editorials. Journals cited included:

  • Columbus, OH Dispatch (April 14, 2005)
  • Staunton, VA News-Leader
  • Lincoln, NE Journal Star
  • Winston-Salem, NC Journal
  • San Antonio, TX Express-News
  • Dallas, TX Morning News
  • Omaha, NE World-Herald
  • Richmond, VA Times-Dispatch

The usually conservative Wall Street Journal fired an early salvo in the DeLay matter when took DeLay to task in a March 28 editorial titled "Smells Like Beltway"

The Journal editorial recapped what it referred to as "the abbreviated rap sheet against Mr. DeLay," including:

  • Travis County, TX DA Ronnie Earle's investigation of Texans for a Republican Matjority (TRMPAC), which alleges that corporate funds were used in a political campaign in violation of Texas law. (The Journal downplayed this as coming from someone with "a record of making suspect accusations.")
  • A 1997 junket to the Marianas Islands in the company of garment industry lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee. DeLay subsequently sought to extend the islands' exemption from US immigration and labor laws
  • A May 2000 trip to the UK with Abramoff and two house colleagues, costing a reported $70,000. The trip was either paid for by the "National Center for Public Policy Research," on whose board Abramoff sat, or by Abramoff himself. (House members are prohibited from having travel expenses covered by a lobbyist.)
  • An August 2001 trip to South Korea sponsored by the Korea-United States Exchange Council, which has "close ties" to former DeLay chief-of-staff Ed Buckham, who registered as a foreign agent days before the trip. (House rules forbid members from traveling on the tab of foreign agents.)

In its scandals scorecard, Slate added:

  • The recent report that DeLay's wife and daughter had been paid more than $500,000 by his political action and campaign committees since 2001
  • A 1997 trip to Russia that was paid for by Chelsea Commercial Enterprises Ltd., a Bahamian-registered company that was financing lobbying efforts for Russian government and business interests. DeLay had reported that the trip was paid by Abramoff's National Center for Public Policy Research, but investigation by the Washington Post revealed that Abramoff had brought the idea to the National Center on behalf of Chelsea.

The Journal also cited DeLay's three reprimands by the House Ethics Committee in 2004, and his changes to the committee's rules, in response. DeLay was admonished:

  • For directing his staff to contact the FAA to assist Texas Republicans in locating Democratic legislators who were protesting a redistricting plan that DeLay advocated, and
  • For having solicited donations from Kansas utility Westar that created the appearance that they would lead to special treatment
  • For having promised to endorse (and possibly provide funding) for the congressional campaign of Representative Nick Smith's son, in return for the Smith's vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill.

Until February, if there was a partisan impasse concerning an ethics allegation, an investigation was automatically triggered after 45 days. In February Republicans changed the rules so that a complaint is automatically dismissed after 45 days if the committee has not taken action.

[Ed. note: on April 27, 2005 the House voted to restore the rules that were in place prior to February.]

On April 15, ten former Republican lawmakers wrote Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert to complain that changes to the House ethics rules in January were "an obvious action to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who had been admonished ... for well- publicized misuse of money and/or power"

A Reagan Revolutionary

Tom DeLay's journey to public prominence began with changes in the Texas economy brought on by the end of the oil boom of the 70s and 80s. In the aftermath of Watergate, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and propelled by Richard Nixon's southern strategy, which wooed conservative southern white Democrats to the GOP, Texas shifted politically to the right, particularly in the suburbs, which had grown at a hectic pace during the oil boom. When Texan Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1964 he reportedly expressed the fear that he had just ceded political control of the South to the Republicans for a generation -- a concern that was borne out in fact. When DeLay was elected to the Texas Legislature in 1978, buoyed by the strong Republican vote from the suburbs, he was the first Republican from Fort Bend County since Reconstruction.

DeLay's voting record was pro-business from the start -- some would say fanatically so. In the Texas Legislature he opposed extending workmen's compensation to farm workers. He advocated allowing loan sharks to charge interest rates of up to 90% for loans under $300. His district contained a number of prisons, and DeLay tried to put his stamp on a several measures limiting prisoners rights; he opposed restoring voting rights to pardoned prisoners; he opposed conjugal visits for state inmates; he opposed allowing nonviolent offenders to serve time in community correction centers; he opposed furloughs for prisoners to attend family funerals. He opposed efforts to conform Texas state law to the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1968. But he supported measures permitting radioactive waste to be stored within fifty miles of Texas urban centers.

DeLay shares with George W. Bush the self-designation of "businessman" and the distinction of never having been particularly successful. Bush, of course, had the advantage of being able to be bailed out by "Poppy's" wealthy friends; DeLay had no such luck. As is now well known, DeLay's chosen business was pest extermination. His specialty according to one account, was preparing rat bait. Texas legislators are paid a statutory $7,200 a year, which, in the words of Lou Dubose and Jan Reid, ensures that the legislature is "made up of those wealthy enough to serve and those who live off the largesse of the business lobby -- or those who fall into both categories." Depending on the audience, DeLay admits to having stayed in the extermination business for six or eighteen years after the 1978 election.

DeLay's hatred of the Environmental Protection Administration dates back to his pest control days. Like other Gulf Coast exterminators, his firm habitually used the pesticide Mirex to kill fire ants -- aggressive South American imports who are particularly resistant to most pesticides, often simply moving their ant hills away from the offensive substance. Mirex is also a "persistent bioaccumulative toxin" that causes kidney, liver, intestinal, and central nervous system damage, and may be a carcinogen. Fire ants must have been a serious problem in Texas; when the EPA banned Mirex in 1978 after six years of hearings, Tom DeLay decided he would run for Congress.

In announcing his candidacy for Congress in 1983, DeLay described himself as a Reagan Republican, a "consistent, conscientious conservative," and promised to vote against every Congressional spending bill. But the Reagan election, which swept Tom DeLay into office, also highlighted the cultural divide that still exists in the country. Conservatives dominated the center and south of the country, while liberals and moderates maintained a virtual exile on the coasts or in isolated urban pockets. As Dubose and Reid put it, "The Republican Party was becoming the party of suburban American, and Tom DeLay lived in and represented suburban America."

The first issue DeLay tackled on arriving in Washington was cultural. He called a press conference and asked reporters to read passages from scatological and erotic poems by National Endowment for the Arts grantees. The sensationalism brought DeLay considerable media attention, and he was quick to assume the posture of the crusading moralist, guarding the little guy's money against the extravagance of elitists who would spend it on immoral excess. The chairman of the NEA asked "What does he want us to be? An official art agency where you only fund things that are acceptable to everybody? That's just like they have in the Soviet Union." Yet that was close to what DeLay wanted. Members of the Houston arts community were among those who railed against DeLay's "morality march."

While he was crusading against immoral excess by day, DeLay claims that in 1985 he was downing ten to twelve martinis a night. "I would stay out all night drinking till the bars closed.... [T]hen I got up sober and went to work." A colleague worried about DeLay's stress level and urged him to watch a videotape of conservative evangelist James Dobson. The tape, an episode of a series of quasi-sermons called Where's Dad? that Dobson's organization markets around the world, decried the values communicated in popular culture and bemoaned the failure of parents to teach values to their children. Whether Dobson's critique confronted DeLay with his own absence from his daughter, or revived memories of his own difficult childhood with an alcoholic father, or both, DeLay -- like George W. Bush -- converted to fundamentalist Christianity. "... [A]s he converted to Christianity, the country was converting with him in a second Great Awakening of evangelical fervor," Dubose and Reid wrote.

One of DeLay's early confrontations with the EPA was over highway development near his home district. In the 70s Robert Mosbacher, Bush I's Secretary of Commerce, had formed a real estate investment group and bought 5,400 acres of pasture land. Mosbacher's investment was less than $5 million. The chief obstacle to developing the area was that there were no convenient commuter routes from the so-called Cinco Ranch to Houston. Landowners banded together and agreed to privatize the right-of-way acquisition -- purchasing the land necessary to complete the "Grand Parkway" that would circle Houston and provide Interstate-quality access to Cinco Ranch. The Cinco Ranch tract was sold for $84 million.

Standing in the way of the Grand Parkway, however, were a number of federal environmental regulations. The route would have crossed a prairie habitat, destroyed part of an oak forest, and disturbed wetland areas in Galveston Bay. The EPA's southwest regional director, former Texas water commissioner and Republican Buck Wynne, sided with the Sierra Club, the Houston Audubon Society and the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention (GASP). DeLay accused Wynne of misrepresenting "the views of special interest groups as those of the public." Wynne countered that "... the EPA considers the organizations represented at the scoping hearing 'public interest groups' as opposed to 'special interest groups' (inasmuch as the later term connotes a financial interest in the outcome of an issue)."

In a reply to Wynne DeLay wrote:

I cannot see the accuracy in defining public interest groups in this manner. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, is a special interest group that has no financial stake in the outcome of any particular issue, yet, I think we can safely say that the KKK is no representative of the general public. Obviously, financial gain is irrelevant in this case and is immaterial in defining special interest groups.

In Texas in 1986, with a worldwide glut of oil, pest control was hardly a necessity, and DeLay's Albo Pest Control merged with A-Abco Pest Control owned by Robert Hicks, who inexplicably changed his name to Blankenship. Blankenship assumed some of Albo's debt. Some time in 1990 or '91 DeLay and partner Darrell Hutto reportedly discussed selling Albo without consulting Blankenship. Blankenship was apparently entertaining offers to buy the company, as well, and was told by one prospective buyer that Albo's books were a mess and included substantial debt that was not completely accounted for. Blankenship also learned that his medical insurance had been canceled, although his wife was ill, but that the company continued to deduct the premium from his paycheck. Hutto, by his account, obtained approval from DeLay, and made Blankenship an offer for his share of Albo. Blankenship left the company offices taking an old customer list with him -- the company secretary refused to print a current one. Hutto changed the office locks and posted a notice informing Blankenship that he was fired. Blankenship sued.

The focus of the lawsuit was whether Albo had assumed $48,000 in debt from DeLay's first campaign for Congress, which would have been a violation of federal law. Blankenship testified that he had questioned amounts owed to several banks when he first reviewed company financial statements with Darrell Hutto. According to Blankenship, Hutto said, that it was money "'that Tom DeLay borrowed to run his campaign; and we're stuck with paying it back.'" Hutto disputed Blankenship's story, saying that the amounts were personal debts that DeLay had accrued financing Albo before it was incorporated, and that they were recorded as stockholder loans at the insistence of the firm's tax accountant.

The tax accountant, Lyn Colby, came close to corroborating Blankenship's version of events. In a deposition, Blankenship's lawyer asked if Colby recalled Hutto mentioning political debts paid with corporate funds. "There could have been,"Colby said. "You know when he said a personal debt, he could have told me that it had something to do with the campaign. That, I can't recall exactly."

Despite the efforts of Blankenship and his attorney to go to trial quickly, DeLay and his lawyer -- his brother Randy -- managed to obtain repeated postponements. Finally in 1994 DeLay and Hutto received an offer to buy the company from Roger's Pest Control of Stafford, TX. A state district judge advised Blankenship, DeLay and Hutto to settle so that the sale could proceed, which they did. The terms were confidential, and only the buyer retained any association with Albo Pest Control.

Project Relief

The change in the way Washington works with which DeLay is most prominently associated is perhaps the so-called K-Street project, whose objective is to capture business political contributions, and make lobbyists essentially Republican legislative operatives. The origin of the K-Street project can be traced to a gathering of lobbyists in Tom DeLay's office on January 4, 1995, for what was called Project Relief. Far from the humanitarian goals the uninitiated might infer from the title, Project Relief's goal was to reduce government regulation and cut corporate taxes. While it is not uncommon for lobbyists to write bills, amendments, and talking points, here lobbyists from the energy, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries had set up operations in the offices of the House leadership.

The main deregulation bill was drafted by Gordon Gooch, who had represented energy and chemical industries since the Nixon administration. As floor debate began on the legislation, DeLay and his cronies assigned lobbyists to pressure specific House members, based on industry presence in the members' districts. A Johnson & Johnson lobbyist was assigned to New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone, because Johnson & Johnson had a plant in Pallone's district. Federal Express, headquartered in Memphis, TN, was assigned to Tennessee Republican John Tanner. Agri-business lobbyists were assigned to Texas Democrat Charlie Stenholm. As debate continued, lobbyists with laptops in tow wrote amendments, because, said DeLay "they have the expertise."

DeLay had promised a veto-proof vote. The bill passed the House 276-147, but died in the Senate.

This was the era of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with American" (affectionately dubbed the "Contract on America" by critics). DeLay's fellow Texan and then-Majority-Leader Dick Armey tapped him to write the deregulation section of the Contract. The Republican leadership decided that, rather than present single bills, they would legislate by appropriation, attaching policies to sometimes unrelated bills emerging from the House Appropriations Committee. DeLay took the opportunity to go after the agency that had rendered him impotent against fire ants -- the EPA. He attached seventeen riders to one appropriations bill that

  • Cut EPA funding by a third
  • Cut funding for the EPA's enforcement agency by a half
  • Blocked agency policies on oil refinery pollution and toxic waste
  • Stopped the EPA from enforcing wetland protections
  • Ended vehicle emissions tests required under the Clean Air Act
  • Incorporated language from a Cement Kiln Recycling Association position paper that made it more difficult for the EPA to regulate the burning of hazardous waste as "fuel."

"We are ideologues," DeLay said, "I want to repeal the Clean Air Act.... We say to the lobbyists 'help us.' We know what we want to do and we find the people to help us do that." Later he would add, "... the EPA, the Gestapo of government, pure and simply has been one of the major claw hooks that the government has maintained on the backs of our constituents."

The episode marked an early skirmish between DeLay and members of his own party. Sherwood Boehlert, Republican of New York, convinced a group of moderates that the EPA riders were not good policy. Boehlert authored an amendment to the appropriations bill that contained DeLay's EPA riders, and joined by Democrats, voted them down 212-206. Fearing moderates would vote down other parts of the Contract, Gingrich adjourned the House for the weekend.

The following Monday, several Democrats had apparently not made it back to Washington, so in a move that would presage subsequent rule-bending for partisan ends, Armey and DeLay scheduled a re-vote on the appropriations bill. Boehlert assailed the re-vote -- something that almost never occurred in Congress. "They're assuming that people are voting one way or other that has nothing to do with principle.... For forty years we were in the minority and we complained about Democratic high-handed tactics. Now we're in power and we're doing the same thing."

An amendment must have a majority to pass, and with Democrats absent Boehlert's lost 210-210. Despite the re-vote, DeLay's riders were eventually omitted from the appropriations bill, and much of what DeLay and Gingrich passed in the House was "neutered" in the Republican-controlled but less radical Senate.

Although only three pieces of the Contract became law, the procedural changes that Gingrich, Armey, and DeLay effected in the House were more profound. They did away with the seniority system by which committee chairs had been selected. They imposed a six-year limit on the chairs, and demanded letters of allegiance from freshmen who they appointed to subcommittee chairs. They eliminated study groups, which had published summaries of complex legislation, and cut committee staffs by a third, centralizing power in the House leadership (themselves).

The Contract era was a crucial formative period for DeLay, who never forgot the defeat of his anti-EPA riders. It was the beginning of his commitment to oppose moderates in his own party, who didn't understand his "revolution," marginalizing them in the Congress, and encouraging and funding conservative opponents in Republican primaries in their districts at home.

Faith-based Reality

Perhaps Ronald Reagan knew the John Adams quote he was paraphrasing ("Facts are stubborn things") when he declared "Facts are stupid things" but the quote could be a slogan of the "faith-based" reality that DeLay and others on the right have come to advocate. Certainly facts have never prevented DeLay from making a spectacle of himself. In 1995 DeLay told Walter Cronkhite on a Discovery Channel special "DDT is a very viable pesticide, and in fact, the stoppage of usage of DDT around the world is now costing about two million people their lives a year -- because of malaria."

DDT's deadly effect on the eggs and young of eagles, ospreys, pelicans and other species is widely recognized. The reported increase in malaria cases in third world countries has been attributed to increased areas of standing water caused by clearing of rainforests, demographic changes, and other causes.

DeLay went on to deny that acid rain was a problem in the northeastern US and Canada. "There is no crisis...," he said. "...[W]e could have simply spend $500,000 on lime, and put it in the lakes in the Northeast, and corrected the acid problem."

A Government Accountability Office report from March 2000 concluded that sulfur dioxide emissions had declined since 1990, but that nitrogen oxide emissions remained about the same. The report also summarized the harmful effects of acid rain, which include lung disorders in humans, decline of fish populations, impairing forest growth and reducing trees' ability to resist disease, and accelerating deterioration of buildings.

As DeLay told Cronkhite, however, he and his cohorts on the Republican right had no interest in debate on this or any subject. "We have a strategy," he said, "of using every tool available -- every vehicle available to us -- to make sure our positions prevail."

"I can't afford you as a brother...."

Some critics will concede that DeLay's passionate opposition to government regulations, which renders him inarticulate at times, is based in heartfelt belief. His political opponents have had difficulty demonstrating that he has benefited personally from his advocacy of corporate causes. Enriching family members, however, is another story.

In 1995 DeLay and a group of fellow Republican congress members signed a letter address to then-Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, protesting tariffs imposed on the Mexican concrete monopoly Cemex, which had been selling cement well below market prices ("dumping") in the US. DeLay complained in a Houston Chronicle op-ed piece that the tariff would harm small contractors and home builders in the US. Cemex's campaign against the tariff was supported by the National Association of Homebuilders (a trade group), and the lobbying firm of Fulbright & Jaworski. Fulbright & Jaworski rented office space to DeLay's brother Randy, and in his first three months as a Washington lobbyist, Randy DeLay earned $176,000.

Randy DeLay also represented Union Pacific railroad in its efforts to merge with Southern Pacific. A government antitrust attorney called the proposal "the most anti-competitive rail merger in history," and it faced opposition from state and federal agencies, elected officials, and trade associations. As described in disclosure forms, Randy DeLay's duties on the project included "edification of the Texas congressional delegation," and sure enough, Tom DeLay and five colleagues wrote the federal Surface Transportation Board urging approval of the measure. Union Pacific contributed $98,000 to the Republican party that year, and Denver investor Philip Anschutz, who would make hundreds of millions of dollars from the merger, contributed $300,000 just weeks before the board was to rule.

The real windfall for Randy DeLay, however, was the I-69 project. Brother Tom inserted language in the 1995 National Highway System bill ensuring that the route of the new Interstate would include a stretch of US59 in his Fort Bend County district, near Houston. While its construction would undoubtedly increase traffic delays and air pollution for an already heavily polluted Houston, cement companies, construction firms, and real estate developers stood to reap big profits. Not to be left out was Randy DeLay who had several clients with an interest in the I-69 project, who reportedly paid $15,000 a month each for his services.

All in all Randy DeLay made an estimated $750,000 in less than a year as a lobbyist. But the press eventually took the DeLay brothers to task, and Tom DeLay publicly distanced himself from his brother. "Be assured there is no conflict of interest," he said in a statement, claiming that he instructed his staff to limit his brother's access to his office. An ethics investigation cleared Tom DeLay of any wrongdoing -- it would only have been a violation if DeLay himself had benefited. "I can't afford you as a brother, right now," Tom DeLay told his brother, according to Randy. "You chose lobbying over me." By some accounts, the brothers are no longer on speaking terms.

Creative Accounting

In 1996 DeLay's inventive approaches to campaign financing cost Texas businessman Pete Cloeren nearly $450,000 plus a jail sentence that was reduced to probation. Brian Babin, a dentist and congressional candidate from East Texas, suggested to Cloeren, a successful plastics executive, that Cloeren could circumvent limits on campaign contributions by contributing in the name of his employees. Cloeren would pay his employees bonuses in the exact amount that they would contribute to the campaign, and Babin would drive through Cloeren's parking lot to pick up the checks by hand. At Babin's instigation, Cloeren would also cover the expense of flying Tom DeLay into town for fundraising events.

In his testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform, Cloeren stated that DeLay had suggested that Cloeren could funnel additional contributions through Triad corporation, which ran two nonprofit foundations, and through other congressional campaigns. Contributions to Triad would then be routed to the Babin campaign. Perhaps tipped off by a local news reporter who thought Cloeren's employees' contributions looked suspicious, the FBI eventually targeted Cloeren who pleaded guilty to violations of federal campaign finance law.

The basic pattern in the Cloeren affair is the mechanism that DeLay has continued to use and refine. As Dubose and Reid describe it, "Corporate contributions that can't got directly to a campaign are sent to an organization that is not required to report it, which then sends it to a campaign as an individual, PAC, or organizational contribution."

Ouster and Impeachment

By 1997 Newt Gingrich's position of leadership in the House was under attack, fueled by media reports of his shabby treatment of his cancer stricken first wife, and a $300,000 fine from the Federal Election Commission for fundraising irregularities. Still smarting from having had his whip's budget cut, and having always regarded Gingrich as something of an elitist, DeLay became an instigator in the movement to oust Gingrich as Speaker. The anti-Gingrich forces had just decided not to go public with their ouster campaign when The Hill's Sandy Hume got hold of the story, and the plotters scrambled to concoct a cover story. DeLay's story, delivered by a press aide, was that he had not been one of the plotters initially, but in a failure of judgment had told them he would vote to dump Gingrich. Asked if DeLay was Brutus in the plot, a Gingrich staffer responded, "Brutus's betrayal was so important because he was so close and so loyal to Caesar.... DeLay was Cassius."

DeLay also played an important role in the Clinton impeachment proceedings.

Gingrich, who was still Speaker of the House, predicted that Republicans would gain twenty-one House seats in the '98 midterm elections, but they lost five. In the aftermath, according to Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis, there was an opportunity to persuade members of the House to censure rather than impeach Clinton. DeLay blocked any move to censure, however. According to one House staffer, before there was enough evidence for Republican members of congress to make an informed decision, DeLay's staff let it be known that they would "primary" anyone who didn't vote to impeach -- meaning they would find and fund a loyalist candidate to run against them.

A DeLay staffer prepared two letters to be released under the signature of Representative Henry Hyde, chair of the House Judiciary committee, stating Hyde's opposition to a censure vote, and a third apparently intended to be released under Gingrich's signature announced that he intended to call for an impeachment vote. Hyde signed the letters when told that they represented the will of the leadership, although at that point it was not clear that they represented anything but the will of Tom DeLay. The DeLay aide who prepared the letters had worked until recently in Gingrich's office, and forged Gingrich's signature on some of his stationery that she still had. DeLay accomplished these maneuvers while the Judiciary Committee was in session, and Gingrich and his successor Bob Livingston were not in the Capitol. But when the letters were released to the press, they created the impression that the House Republican leadership had decided not to allow a censure vote. DeLay continued to pressure House members as impeachment proceedings progressed, threatening to confront members during primaries in their districts with "evidence" against Clinton from the House Judiciary Committee files, if they failed to vote for impeachment.

DeLay's crusade against Clinton's moral conduct renewed rumors of his own marital infidelity. From the time he served in the Texas legislature allegations surfaced periodically that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. A Capitol Hill newspaper published a photograph of DeLay with a young woman identified as his daughter, who was definitely not Danielle DeLay. In the 90s an investigator approached reporters with documents and a photograph identifying an Austin high school student. DeLay's version is that the photograph was of a runaway that his wife Christine had met while doing volunteer work, and who became the DeLay's foster child.

DeLay treated the impeachment process as if it was a piece of special interest legislation. This, Dubose and Reid wrote, "marked the end of the bipartisan cooperation by which the House had conducted the people's business for more than two hundred years."

Official Action

In 1998 DeLay used his procedural power as Whip to block legislation in an effort to coerce a trade group into making specific hiring decisions. Democrat Dave McCurdy had been hired to succeed former Congressman Pete McCloskey as head of the Electronic Industries Alliance. The EIA along with the Motion Picture Association of American and the Recording Industry Association of America all advocated legislation that implemented guidelines in a World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaty that were designed to prevent unlawful duplication of US software, music, and videos. The legislation was thoroughly pro-business, opposed by consumer advocates, etc. Republican and Democratic members of Congress, including. John Boehner, Republican conference chair, complained about DeLay holding up the legislation. Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler called for an Ethics Committee investigation, arguing that taking an official action to coerce a trade association met the definition of extortion.

A year later the committee finally launched an investigation of the McCurdy matter, and ruled that DeLay had acted improperly by considering political affiliation when taking an official act of Congress. It sent a letter to DeLay that has not been made public, and another to every member of the House noting that they were "prohibited from taking or withholding any official action on the basis of partisan affiliation or the campaign contributions or support of the involved individuals." Dubose and Reid note the narrowness of the prohibition -- members may not use official acts in Congress to intimidate people.

Suave and RICO

When DeLay had become majority whip in 1995, one of the lobbyists who became de facto extensions of his staff was Jack Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew who in the 80s had had represented the dictatorship in Zaire and started a foundation that supported apartheid in South Africa. (Abramoff is currently under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee.) Among Abramoff's clients was the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). The Marianas were controlled by a small group of financiers who recruited workers from China and elsewhere in Asia, housed them in crowded compounds, and charged them fees for the "privilege" of working in garment factories, effectively turning them into indentured servants. Because the islands were a US territory, goods manufactured there received preferential tariff treatment, and bore the label "Made in the USA." In 1992 the US Department of Labor had sued five factories owned by industrialist Willie Tan, and fined them $9 million as restitution to workers who had been unfairly treated. A few years later the government of the Philippines stopped granting visas to its citizens for working in the Marianas, although a settlement was later negotiated.

In 1998 DeLay and his wife and daughter spent the New Year's holiday in the Marianas, courtesy of the local government. DeLay hailed the "free market success" that the CNMI represented, and on returning to the US proposed a domestic "guest worker" program for Mexican workers based on the CNMI model. That spring, the Labor Department again announced that garment manufacturers on Saipan had violated US law. Between 1998 and 2000 the Department collected more than $3 million in fines. Other lawsuits were initiated on behalf of workers, seeking close to $1 billion in damages.

Later that year the Democratic Congressional Committee filed a Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) lawsuit against DeLay and his fundraising operations. DeLay's operation had begun in 1994 when Newt Gingrich slashed DeLay's budget as House Whip. DeLay responded by setting up an organization of his own that would extend his power by contributing to the political campaigns of his colleagues. He hired tobacco lobbyist and anti-union activist Karl Gallant, and induced Enron's Ken Lay to contribute $500,000 to Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC). Enron also came up with a $750,000 consulting contract for Gallant and DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham. Buckham would later set up his own lobbying firm, the Alexander Strategy Group, which boasted DeLay's wife Christine, a retired schoolteacher, on its staff at a $40,000 a year salary.

Also named in the RICO suit was Robert Mills. Prior to running DeLay's 1996 campaign, Mills worked for the Council for Government Reform, from which he reportedly stole $35,000. Before that he had worked for United Conservatives of America, which was investigated by the Federal Election Commission who believed that UCA's huge debts were being used to hide illegal corporate donations. In 1998 Mills represented an organization called the US Family Network, registered as a 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organization focused on Christian conservatives. The outfit shared office space with ARMPAC and the Alexander Strategy Group. Also on the staff of US Family Network was Ed Buckham's wife, at a salary of $59,000 a year.

By 1999 Mills had left US Family Network, but Buckham, an ordained minister remained. The Network made headlines as the recipient of the largest single donation the National Republican Congressional Caucus ever made, $500,000. The check was cut by Virginia Congressman and DeLay crony Tom Davis, NRCC chair, but was never approved by the executive committee. The RICO suit alleged that US Family Network existed to hide the source and control of donated funds. The Washington journal Roll Call speculated that the group also existed to make statements and take actions on behalf of (or in opposition to) candidates that the NRCC would be embarrassed to do directly.

The other "associated organizations" named in the RICO suit were: the Republican Majority Issues Committee (RIMC), which, like US Family Network, was designed to provide (possibly) legal money laundering for political contributions, and Americans for Economic Reform. The suit alleged that DeLay and his cohorts were "extorting" money from people with a stake in federal legislation.

Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who was also the presiding judge in the Microsoft antitrust case, "certified" the RICO suit, meaning that it could proceed. But it never did; the Democrats and DeLay settled. Election reform advocate Fred Wertheimer speculated that the Democrats did not intend for the suit to go forward, but rather just wanted to interfere with fundraising operations. If that's true, they succeeded in part, as RIMC shut down for the 2000 election.

George W. Bush's arrival in the White House allowed DeLay and his colleagues to consolidate their anti-regulatory policies. DeLay and Co. had managed to slow down efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to establish rules protecting workers from a wide range of injuries associated with repetitive motion. The final rules were written in late 2000, and after Bush was installed by the Supreme Court, Bill Clinton ordered them posted in the Federal Registry, effectively making them law. At one of the weekly meetings in DeLay's office, a lobbyist suggested a way of undoing the twelve-year process that had developed the OSHA ergonomics rules. In 1995 Newt Gingrich had developed and Tom DeLay helped pass the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allowed Congress to rescind any rule that had been posted in the Federal Register for fewer than sixty days. Debate was limited to ten hours, and a simple majority vote was required. In one of the first sessions of the 107th Congress, six Democrats in the Senate joined the Republicans in voting for the CRA resolution. In the House it passed 223-206. Having a Republican in the White House allowed members of Congress with large labor constituencies to vote for a measure that undid years of efforts toward improved worker safety.

DeLay founded Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) in September 2001, modeled after ARMPAC, which seeded TRMPAC with $50,000. Having convinced DeLay in previous years that profits from casinos on Native American reservations were not taxable, Jack Abramoff now obliged by obtaining $6,000 from the Barona Mission Indians and the Mississippi Choctaws for the new PAC. Westar Energy of Kansas City contributed $25,000, and similar amounts flowed in from Bacardi USA, Sears, Philip Morris, etc. TRMPAC raised $1.55 million during the 2002 campaign, most of which was targeted to twenty-one House and two Senate races in Texas.

In the Texas legislature DeLay's henchmen launched a plan to redistrict the state in an effort to consolidate their gains in Congress. Democrats concluded that their only hope of stopping the redistricting plan was to prevent a quorum in the State House, so forty-seven representatives secretly left the state for Ardmore, OK, and a few others went to other locations. Texas Governor Perry ordered state troopers to find the missing legislators, arrest them, and bring them back to Austin. When DeLay heard of the Democrats' maneuver, he had a staffer call the Justice Department to see if the FBI had authority to arrest the fugitive legislators. When former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney flew to Ardmore on his private plane, DeLay received an erroneous report that other legislators were with him. A Texas Department of Public Safety investigator contacted the Department of Homeland Security and implied that Laney's plane might be the target of terrorists. The representatives sustained their exile for four or five days, forcing Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick to adjourn the legislative session without taking action on the redistricting plan. Inevitably the Democrats lost, but only after Governor Perry had to call repeated special sessions of the legislature, and DeLay himself returned to Austin to sort out squabbles among the victorious Republicans. Part of his intervention involved personally designing the district in which he would seek re-election. Perry signed the redistricting bill into law in October 2003.

In May 2002 the Kansas City Star reported evidence that executives of utility company Westar were paying for legislation. Westar wanted to split its regulated utility company from the rest of its business, and assign $3 billion in non-utility debt to the regulated company, which would then factor the debt into consumer utility bills. Unfortunately for Westar, this sort of accounting sleight-of-hand was prohibited by the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935. Westar management concluded that it would take $56,000 in political contributions to change the law. Westar's specific request was detailed in a memo from its vice president, Doug Lawrence, to twelve other executives, describing the special exemption from PUHCA that Westar was seeking, and itemizing how the $56,000 would be targeted. Of that amount, $25,000 was destined for TRMPAC. After TRMPAC received payment, a group of Westar executives joined DeLay for a two-day "energy conference" and golf outing at the exclusive Homestead resort in Virginia.

The Westar provision was inserted in the 2002 energy bill by Texas Republican Joe Barton. It was removed when Westar CEO David Wittig for bank fraud in connection with a $1.5 million personal load, and the US Attorney in Topeka, KS began an investigation of Westar.

In the summer of 2003 the Washington Post reported that DeLay cronies Jack Abramoff and Mike Scanlon had collected $45 million in lobbying fees from four Indian tribes. "Jack Abramoff has never been on my payroll," DeLay said. This was technically true, although Abramoff had been one of DeLay's closest advisers for years. Scanlon was one of the aides who accompanied DeLay on his Marianas New Years' holiday in 1998. Soon after, he left DeLay's staff to join Abramoff. Eventually Scanlon set up two public-relations firms, although the company address is reportedly a post-office box. Because Scanlon's companies are nominally public relations businesses, he is not required to disclose his fees, as he would if he were a lobbyist. Of the $45 million reported paid to Scanlon and Abramoff, $31.5 million went to Scanlon's firms.

In 2004 the Michigan Saginaw Chippewa council broke off their relationship with Scanlon and Abramoff, after paying a total of nearly $14 million, or 25% of the tribe's 2002 budget. Senator John McCain initiated a Senate Indian Affairs committee investigation of Scanlon and Abramoff's activities, but will not target DeLay or other lawmakers, according to a March report in Congressional Quarterly. McCain's investigation has determined that $566,000 of the tribal contributions went to the American International Center (AIC) -- a shell entity in Delaware whose directors are pals of Scanlon. AIC paid $1.5 million to Abramoff's firm for lobbying and public relations.

Back home in Texas, DeLay may be under investigation, however. As has received wide publicity, by now, a 100-year old law in Texas makes it illegal to spend corporate money directly on political campaigns. The $600,000 that TRMPAC raised from corporate donors caught the attention of DA Ronnie Earle, of Travis County, TX where Austin is located. Texas law would have permitted spending the corporate money on administrative expenses, such as utilities and rent. But TRMPAC's own IRS filings show that the corporate money was spent on polling, phone banks, and fundraising. Earle has indicted DeLay political associate Jim Ellis, fundraiser Warren RoBold and John Colyandro, executive director of TRMPAC and a Karl Rove associate. In addition, Colyandro and Ellis were charged with money laundering. Earle has also indicted eight corporations. DeLay and Colyandro maintain that DeLay was not involved in TRMPAC day to day operations, but memos introduced at a civil court trial in Austin suggest otherwise:

  • In August 2002, fundraiser Warren RoBold wrote TRMPAC's executive director asking him to create a "top 10 list of givers and let me call them to ask for large contribution. I would then decide from response who Tom DeLay others should call."
  • A September 2002 email from DeLay's former legislative director, Drew Maloney, stated that Maloney had two checks from Reliant Energy. "Will deliver to T.D. next week probably...."

Critics have also suggested that, as a member of the board, DeLay had an obligation to know how the money was being spent. Moreover, DeLay sat in on financial planning sessions, and his daughter was paid $27,600 to set up fundraising events. "Face time" with DeLay was presented as a reward for big contributors. A $100,000 corporate contribution reportedly purchased a private dinner with Tom DeLay; group dinners were available for $50,000.

Earle is also investigating whether TRMPAC influenced selection of Tom Craddick as Texas House Speaker, which would also be a violation of Texas law.

Big Government's Worst Habits

In the past the Wall Street Journal editorial pages have aligned closely with Bush administration policy; some observers have suggested that Karl Rove may have had a hand in the WSJ's criticism of DeLay. True or not, the Journal's cautionary note should be clear evidence to DeLay and his defenders that he can't hide behind tired claims of liberal conspiracy.

Mr. DeLay, who rode to power in 1994 on a wave of revulsion at the everyday ways of big government, has become the living exemplar of some of its worst habits. Mr. DeLay's ties to Mr. Abramoff might be innocent, in a strictly legal sense, but it strains credulity to believe that Mr. DeLay found nothing strange with being included in Mr. Abramoff's lavish junkets.

Nor does it seem very plausible that Mr. DeLay never considered the possibility that the mega-lucrative careers his former staffers Michael Scanlon and Mr. Buckham achieved after leaving his office had something to do with their perceived proximity to him. These people became rich as influence-peddlers in a government in which legislators like Mr. DeLay could make or break fortunes by tinkering with obscure rules and dispensing scads of money to this or that constituency. Rather than buck this system as he promised to do while in the minority, Mr. DeLay has become its undisputed and unapologetic master as Majority Leader.

Whether Mr. DeLay violated the small print of House Ethics or campaign-finance rules is thus largely beside the point. His real fault lies in betraying the broader set of principles that brought him into office, and which, if he continues as before, sooner or later will sweep him out.

On September 28, 2005, Tom Delay was indicted by a Texas grand jury for conspiracy and election law violations.


DCCC/ Kossack Ethics Partnership: McCain Protects DeLay Daily Kos 22 Mar. 2005

"DeLay plays offense behind the scenes" CNN 24 Mar. 2005

Soraghan, Mike "Tancredo: DeLay exit not bad idea" Denver Post 15 Apr. 2005

Allen, Mike "Santorum Urges DeLay to Answer Critics" Washington Post 11 Apr. 2005

Allen, Mike and Sylvia Moreno"Prosecutor Balks When Asked If DeLay Is Target of Tex. Probe" Washington Post 6 Mar. 2005.

"Former House Republicans Condemn Ethics Rules Change " Bloomberg. 16 Apr. 2005

Allen, Mike "DeLay Ethics Allegations Now Cause of GOP Concern" Washington Post 14 Mar. 2005

Babington, Charles "DeLay Draws Third Rebuke" Washington Post 7 Oct. 2004

Barrett, Ted "House Ethics Committee admonishes DeLay again" CNN. 7 Oct. 2004

Zuckman, Jill "Embattled DeLay says he's sorry" Chicago Tribune. 14 Apr. 2005

"Gingrich Criticizes DeLay" Associated Press. 13 Apr. 2005

"Smells Like Beltway" Editorial. Wall Street Journal. 28 Mar. 2005

Smith, R. Jeffrey and James V. Grimaldi "A 3rd DeLay Trip Under Scrutiny" Washington Post. 6 Apr. 2005

Shenon, Philip "Political Groups Paid Two Relatives of House Leader" NY Times 6 Apr. 2004

Thompson, Nicholas "The Tom DeLay Scandals" Slate 7 Apr. 2005

Zuckman, Jill "House leader DeLay appeals for GOP senators' support" Chicago Tribune 13 Apr. 2005

"It's not just the 'liberal media': Papers that endorsed Bush weigh in on DeLay" 15 Apr. 2005

Bumiller, Elisabeth "Bush Is Seen as Unlikely to Seek DeLay's Ouster" NY Times 15 Apr. 2005

Dubose, Lou and Jan Reid. The Hammer New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

Anderson, Rick "Following the Money" Seattle Weekly 6 Apr. 2005

Hulse, Carl "DeLay Mails Long Rebuttal to Voters Back in Texas" NY Times 19 Apr. 2005

See also



Five years after his indictment, a Texas jury convicted Delay of conspiring to circumvent state law against corporate contributions to political campaigns. He was convicted of one count of money laundering, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Read the NY Times report.