By James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 12, 2005
An Indian tribe and a gambling services company made donations to a Washington public policy group that covered most of the cost of a $70,000 trip to Britain by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), his wife, two aides and two lobbyists in mid-2000, two months before DeLay helped kill legislation opposed by the tribe and the company.
The sponsor of the week-long trip listed in DeLay's financial disclosures was the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy Research, but a person involved in arranging DeLay's travel said that lobbyist Jack Abramoff suggested the trip and then arranged for checks to be sent by two of his clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and eLottery Inc.
The dates on the checks coincided with the day DeLay left on the trip, May 25, 2000, according to grants documents reviewed by The Washington Post. The Choctaw and eLottery each sent a check for $25,000, according to the documents. They now say that they were unaware the money was being used to finance DeLay's travels.
But Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center, said that, when the trip was arranged, Abramoff promised he would secure financial backing. She said that even without Abramoff's efforts, the National Center would have borne the cost of the trip, which was intended to allow the group to network with conservative British politicians and included an outing to the famous St. Andrews golf course in Scotland.
"We paid for the trip," Ridenour said. "This trip was going to be paid for by the National Center, regardless of whether we got the donations from the Choctaw or eLottery."
House ethics rules allow lawmakers and their staffs to have travel expenses paid only for officially connected travel and only by organizations directly connected to the trips. The rules also require that lawmakers accurately report the people or organizations that pay for the trips. They prohibit payments by registered lobbyists for lawmakers' travel.
DeLay's spokesman, Dan Allen, said: "The trip was sponsored, organized and paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, as our travel disclosures accurately reflect and what the National Center has publicly said."
Abramoff's attorney, Abbe David Lowell, declined to comment. Abramoff, the National Center and the flow of money between them are now being investigated by a federal task force and by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs; DeLay was admonished three times last year for infringements of House ethics rules.
To prove an ethics violation, investigators would have to show that DeLay and his staff knew the gambling interests were funding the trip, said Jan W. Baran, a Wiley Rein & Fielding LLP ethics lawyer who often represents Republicans. "If somebody is doing some backdoor financing, how would the member know?"
Abramoff, a member of the National Center's board, joined the DeLays on the May 25 to June 3, 2000, trip, which DeLay's congressional office has said included a stop in London and a visit with Margaret Thatcher, along with the golf outing at St. Andrews, where colleagues say Abramoff has a membership.
DeLay, an avid golfer, listed the purpose of the trip on a report filed with the House clerk as "educational." He was majority whip at the time and brought his wife, Christine, and two top staff members -- Tony Rudy from the whip's office and chief of staff Susan Hirschmann, as well as her husband, David Hirschmann, according to filings with the House clerk that indicated the total cost of transportation, lodging and meals was $70,265.Internet Gambling Bill Killed
Two months later, in July 2000, DeLay and 43 other Republicans joined 114 Democrats in killing the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, which would have made it a federal crime to place certain bets over the Internet and was opposed by eLottery and the Choctaws. The bill was supported by 165 Republicans and 79 Democrats but fell about 25 votes short of passage; because of a parliamentary maneuver, it required a two-thirds majority vote.
DeLay spokesman Allen said that DeLay voted against the bill because it had exemptions for jai alai and horse and dog racing. Rudy later that year went to work for Abramoff as a lobbyist.
The Choctaw Indians run a highly profitable casino near Philadelphia, Miss., that bankrolls their community activities and has subsidized an extensive lobbying effort in Washington. The tribe donated a total of $65,000 to Ridenour's group in 2000 and $1.07 million in 2002.
The Choctaw money was intended to help the center create a program to build support for the idea that Indian casinos could drive prosperity for poor tribes, Ridenour said. "We were trying to tell the Choctaw story," she said. On its Web site, the center attributes the following statement to DeLay: "The National Center is The Center for conservative communications."
Asked about the DeLay trip to Britain, tribal lawyer Bryant Rogers said: "The tribe did not authorize the use of any money for this purpose. . . . If it occurred, it occurred without the tribe's knowledge."
ELottery is a Connecticut company that provides Internet services to state lotteries. One version of the gambling legislation contained a provision that would have severely restricted state lottery sales over the Internet. Edwin J. McGuinn, president of eLot Inc., the parent of eLottery, said the provision would have killed his company. "We wouldn't have been able to operate," he said.
McGuinn said he was unaware that eLottery's $25,000 check was meant to pay for DeLay's trip. Of the donation to the National Center, he said: "It certainly was our impression that any and all moneys were being positioned to get the attention and focus of our cause."
DeLay today describes himself as a longtime opponent of any expansion of gambling. But in a House floor speech six months after his trip to Britain, he praised the head of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians as a "champion of peace and prosperity" and placed in the Congressional Record an editorial praising chief Phillip Martin for enriching the tribe through the "construction of a casino."
The editorial, from the magazine Indian Country Today, noted that Martin had also wisely positioned his tribe "to solidify friendships with Republican powerhouses." It said -- in an apparent reference to Abramoff -- that the tribe and its chief had hired "quality lobbyists as their new wealth allowed" and successfully persuaded Republican leaders that the tribal revenue from gambling and other ventures should not be taxed.
Three and a half weeks after DeLay's Jan. 3, 2001, speech saluting Martin "for all he has done to further the cause of freedom," at least one of DeLay's aides went on a trip via private jet to the Super Bowl in Tampa arranged and financed by one of Abramoff's companies. Sources familiar with the trip said the guests were also taken out to an Abramoff-owned gambling ship that was anchored near Tampa.
No one on DeLay's staff filed a report disclosing the trip, a task required by House rules for "the receipt of travel expenses from private sources" but not for government-funded or political travel.
DeLay spokesman Allen said: "The staffer went down to participate in a National Republican Congressional Committee party, so it was considered political travel. The staffer never saw Abramoff during the trip."
The Internet gambling legislation was the only issue Abramoff and his employer at the time, Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP, mentioned in lobbying disclosure records when they reported earning $440,000 in fees from eLottery in 2000. The Internet gambling bill was one of several legislative issues listed in a separate lobbying disclosure for the firm's efforts on behalf of the Choctaw, which paid Preston Gates $880,000 in 2000.Expense Voucher Submitted
The trip to Britain by the DeLays previously attracted notice because Abramoff submitted an expense voucher to Preston Gates seeking a reimbursement of $12,789.73 to cover expenses for meals, hotels and transportation incurred by the DeLays, the Hirschmanns and a former DeLay chief of staff -- lobbyist Ed Buckham -- who also went on the trip.
House ethics rules prohibit registered lobbyists such as Abramoff from paying for a lawmaker's expenses. But the Preston Gates records state that Abramoff told his firm he paid $4,285.35 for the DeLays' stay at London's Four Seasons Hotel, plus $5,174.64 for the Hirschmanns' stay. He also reported spending $800 on transportation for the group between May 25 and May 29.
The existence of the voucher and a portion of its contents were reported last month in the National Journal. The voucher's tally of expenses differs from the account given by DeLay in a signed report to the House clerk on June 30, 2000, in which he reported that total lodging for the couple over nine nights cost Ridenour's group $3,840. Susan Hirschmann's separate, signed report also gave a different figure from Abramoff; she stated that lodging expenses for her husband and her for this period amounted to $3,360.
Both the DeLays and the Hirschmanns reported their meal expenses during the trip as $2,000 per person, or roughly $200 a day.
Last week, DeLay told reporters that he had reported the trip "as we are supposed to do." He said that, to his knowledge, the National Center "paid for the trip."
DeLay told Cox News Service earlier this month: "I went to London to meet with conservatives in England and Scotland and talk about the things we had been doing in the Republican, conservative House. They wanted to dialogue to see if they could adopt some the things that we had done."
A person who went on the trip but spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the controversy said that DeLay talked with Thatcher about her efforts to help end the Cold War and with others about trade issues. An aide to Thatcher confirmed that the meeting occurred.
Abramoff was a member of the board of the National Center from about 1997 until last October, when the center accepted his resignation.
Stanley Brand, a former Democratic counsel to the House and an ethics specialist, said arrangements in which funds are passed through an intermediary to pay for a lawmaker's travels breach ethics rules if the lawmaker who benefited "knew or should have known" the origin of funds.
Brand said the House ethics committee, if it opens an investigation, would have to decide whether the circumstances of the travel "should have put a reasonable person on notice that it was paid for by someone else."
Researchers Alice Crites, Lucy Shackelford and Don Pohlman contributed to this report.