Analysis

Ethics Issues Snared GOP's Champion

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) greets supporters in Sugar Land, Tex., after announcing his decision to drop his bid to regain his House leadership position.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) greets supporters in Sugar Land, Tex., after announcing his decision to drop his bid to regain his House leadership position. (By David J. Phillip -- Associated Press)

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By R. Jeffrey Smith and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 8, 2006

Standing before a crowd of applauding House Republicans in the Capitol Hill Club last March, then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) inscribed $1.8 million on a giant check and signed his name at the bottom with the flourish of a game show host. The tally, representing funds to be given to the campaigns of 10 Republican lawmakers, was yet another cache collected by one of the premier money machines ever to function on Capitol Hill.

It worked simply. On one side of the machine, a hose vacuumed the pockets of large corporations, wealthy individuals and legions of lobbyists on K Street, all instructed by DeLay to contribute only to Republicans. Out the other side, at some later date, came legislation of interest to many of the donors. Inside the machine, twisting its knobs and pulling its levers, was DeLay -- who was unabashed about his pay-to-play philosophy and relentless in enforcing his political rules.

DeLay's tenure in the congressional leadership, which came to a decisive end with his announcement yesterday that he would not try to regain the leadership post, was marked by an extraordinary record of political accomplishment. From Dec. 6, 1994, until last year, the former pest exterminator from a Houston suburb was the go-to guy in the House for legislative favors, perks, committee chairmanships and election cash.

"Tom DeLay and I have had our differences over the years, but he is one of the most effective and gifted leaders the Republican Party has ever known," said Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), who served in the leadership just below DeLay when the GOP, for the first time in recent years, won a majority in the House. He is likely to run for DeLay's now vacated slot as majority leader.

As President Bush noted recently, when DeLay was in the saddle, the administration's priorities were enacted by the House. Under his prodding, that body became in effect a single-party institution, with negligible Democratic influence in any aspect of its operations, from hearings to appropriations.

But DeLay's leadership was undermined over time by a blurring of ethical lines in the handling of money by his aides and advisers, his taste for the lifestyle of the super-rich, and his take-no-prisoners approach to political disputes in a town built on compromise. A lawmaker who cast himself as an icon of moral conservatism, DeLay came increasingly to be regarded as a symbol of special-interest lawmaking. With an election looming in 11 months, his colleagues began to fear the consequences.

Although DeLay was admonished by the House ethics committee as early as 1999 for retaliating against a trade association that hired a Democrat, for the most part his rigidly partisan style was welcomed by Republicans. Not until 2004 did the first major cracks in the DeLay political edifice appear. In three reports, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct rebuked him for asking federal aviation officials to intervene in a Texas political spat, for improperly pressuring a fellow Republican to vote for a Medicare drug bill, and for creating the appearance that Westar Energy Inc. received special consideration in exchange for campaign donations.

The committee called on him to "temper your future actions to assure you are in compliance" with House ethics rules. But DeLay blamed the rebukes on malevolent Democrats, and his supporters retaliated by ousting the Republican chairman of the committee and tying up its operations in a prolonged dispute over staffing.

More serious damage was done by an ethics inquiry in DeLay's home state, which led last September to his felony indictment and forced him to step aside temporarily under party rules. At issue was one of DeLay's more brilliant achievements, hailed by his fellow Republicans for solidifying their control of the House -- orchestrating a party takeover in the Texas legislature that led to an extraordinary redrawing of congressional districts and the election of five more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004.

Charges of DeLay's involvement in money laundering associated with that state Republican victory in 2002 are unproved, and many campaign finance lawyers consider the Texas case to be weak. But DeLay's name has also figured prominently in a second ethics probe -- this one in Washington, under the aegis of a federal task force looking at the links between money and favors associated with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff, whom DeLay once termed "one of my closest and dearest friends," pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion and promised to cooperate with investigators. Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former spokesman, pleaded guilty Nov. 21 to conspiracy to bribe public officials and likewise promised cooperation. Prosecutors are meanwhile looking at actions taken by ex-DeLay aides Tony C. Rudy and Edwin A. Buckham on behalf of Abramoff's clients. No one knows where these inquiries will lead, and uncertainty is always the enemy of political strength.

DeLay, now 58, gained a biology degree at the University of Houston and pursued a political career out of opposition to regulation of the pesticide industry. He first came to Congress in 1985, but it was not until a decade later that Buckham, Rudy, Scanlon, and Abramoff played key roles in DeLay's ascent in the GOP hierarchy, a rise underpinned by the steady infusion of corporate cash into Republican political campaigns.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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