Politics & Policy

Got Delay?

A dirty-tricks campaign against the House majority leader.

The Washington Post’s top story on Monday led with a hyperventilating revelation that Enron donated money to political campaigns, including some with ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R., Texas). (Shocking, isn’t it?)

The story goes on to reveal that after Enron donated money to political causes close to DeLay, he deviated wildly from his limited-government, conservative principles and supported deregulation legislation–an obvious, open-and-shut case of quid pro quo.

This effort to make DeLay radioactive by associating his name with Enron as many times as possible in one article is characteristic of the way the majority leader’s enemies have tried to throw any charge they can in the hopes that, if they get the words “DeLay,” “ethics,” and “investigation” in print enough times, he will be too embattled to lead effectively. Underneath the overheated rhetoric, however, the case against DeLay is a patchwork of weak accusations.

The House Ethics Complaint

Each accusation is neatly summed up by an ethics complaint lame-duck Rep. Chris Bell (D., Texas) filed against DeLay in June. Bell, who lost his primary after his district was redrawn, decided to toss a lit match over his shoulder on his way out and torched an unofficial seven-year truce between the parties. Bell blames his loss on the redistricting process (which DeLay helped engineer), even though Bell spent approximately twice as much as his opponent, Al Green. The complaint–which threatens to reignite the nasty ethics battles of the 1990s, when members filed and counter-filed ethics charges against one another–provides a good snapshot of the kinds of tactics DeLay’s opponents are using to attack him.

Count I

In mid-2002, energy company Westar donated $25,000 to the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC). The first count of Bell’s complaint alleges that DeLay requested the donation in return for supporting legislation favorable to Westar.

But no proof produced so far indicates that DeLay requested any money from Westar. When the company went down for fraud, internal company memos revealed that several politicians, such as Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas), requested contributions be made to other candidates instead of to their own campaigns. But DeLay was not among those who requested anything. Moreover, the memos provide no evidence of a quid pro quo, even among those politicians who requested donations be made to other candidates. One way to interpret the memo would be to say that Westar executives asked these politicians how they could contribute and, because these politicians had enough money in their coffers, they directed Westar to the campaigns of their allies. Another way would be to accuse every politician named in the memo of bribery and corruption, then file an ethics complaint against the one guy not specifically on record as having asked for anything. Bell opted for the latter.

According to a June 22, 2004 article in Roll Call, Rep. Barton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, first introduced the Westar language in the text of a larger bill (H.R. 3406) back in December 2001–before he received any campaign cash from Westar. Money started flowing from Westar to Barton’s campaign and his PAC, the Texas Freedom Fund, in 2002, after Barton had already become a champion of the provision. But even if Barton and Westar made a deal, where does Tom DeLay fit in? DeLay was one of many politicians to receive money from Westar and Westar executives David Wettig and Donald Lake in 2002. Others included Democrat senators Jean Carnahan and Mary Landrieu, and almost every lawmaker involved with energy legislation. Westar, like any corporation, spread campaign cash far and wide to hedge its bets.

Realizing that a quid pro quo in this case is almost impossible to prove, Bell backslides in his own complaint, writing that, “even if the Committee is not convinced that DeLay solicited a bribe in violation of federal law,” (because Bell can’t prove it) “the Standards of Official Conduct Committee should still find that Rep. DeLay was ‘dispensing special favors’ in violation of House rules.”

What special favors? The complaint doesn’t specify. If Bell means that DeLay was “dispensing special favors” by supporting a regulatory exemption that benefited only Westar, he should explain why his fellow Democrats opposed the exemption on the grounds that, as Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) has said, “potentially hundreds” of companies would benefit. During debate over the amendment, Barton was forced to go out of his way to prove to Democrats that the “provision benefits one company”: Westar. Ironically, Bell is now using those words against DeLay in the complaint.

Bell is not the only DeLay opponent who persists in repeating admittedly weak allegations to besmirch him. The Houston Chronicle editorial board, an implacable DeLay opponent that has likened the lawmaker to Beelzebub, admitted that “DeLay denied any quid pro quo, and probably none was stated,” but that “business interests focused on enriching themselves do not hand out lavish campaign donations without expecting something in return.” This may be true. But campaign-finance law is what it is, and DeLay has done nothing illegal.

DeLay’s opponents know this, as the backsliding complaint and the sour-grapes editorials seem to indicate. But they also know that by relentlessly associating DeLay with the routine back-scratching of political fundraising, they could mire him in just enough muck to impede his ability to lead.

Count II

Count II of the complaint is more of the same, focusing on many of the allegations detailed in the Post story and which Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, has been investigating since 2002. Kate O’Beirne has already debunked most of these allegations in the May 17, 2004 National Review, but because Bell and the Post have dredged them back up, it is appropriate to revisit this flailing investigation and the myths surrounding it.

The complaint alleges what Earle and three grand juries have so far failed to conclude after almost two years of investigations: that DeLay illegally funneled corporate money (which cannot be used for campaigns in Texas) through TRMPAC in an effort to elect Republicans to the Texas state legislature so they could redraw districts to favor the GOP. O’Beirne does a thorough job of demonstrating the absurdity of most of these charges. One thing she did not have space to address (what with so many preposterous accusations to deflate) was the myth that TRMPAC “laundered” $190,000 in corporate contributions through the Republican National State Elections Committee (RNSEC).

The Post reported Monday that on Sept. 10, TRMPAC sent a $190,000 check to the RNSEC. The Post goes on to say the RNSEC “sent the same total amount in seven checks ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 to Texas House candidates on Oct. 4, 2002.” The Post makes this numbers game the centerpiece of a large flowchart in the middle of its story.

The Post fails to mention that, in October of 2002, the RNSEC sent a total of nine checks to eight Texas House candidates for a total of $234,500. (Rick Green’s check for $20,000 is not listed, because it came from a separate RNSEC account.) None of these checks came from the RNSEC account to which TRMPAC contributed.

Not only does the Post report use numbers selectively, but also the best defense they provide for TRMPAC is a quote from a lawyer saying that if TRMPAC’s actions constituted money laundering, “lots of Democrats and Republicans around the U.S. would have soap on their hands.”

This is partly true. An Institute on Money in State Politics study reveals that on Oct. 31, 2002, the Texas Democratic party did essentially the same thing when it sent $75,000 to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and received $75,000 back from the DNC the very same day. But the Post quote made it sound like TRMPAC’s only excuse was that everyone was laundering money. In fact, attorney Ben Ginsberg, campaign-fundraising adviser to the Republican National Committee, recently told NRO that actions like these are “perfectly legal.” However, routine legal maneuvers that comply with absurd campaign-finance laws do not, apparently, make very exciting flowcharts.

Just to put this $190,000 deal into perspective and demonstrate the petty, vindictive nature of this partisan investigation, the study also reveals that Democrats transferred a total of approximately $11 million dollars in soft money from its national parties to fund Texas campaigns in 2002, compared to $5.2 million transferred by Republicans. But none of those national Democrat committees received money from corporations, of course. Certainly not from Enron.

Count III

The third count of the complaint provides a moment of humor in what is otherwise the depressing last act of a bitter and pathetic lame duck. Lacking the votes to defeat a redistricting plan they didn’t favor, Democrats in the Texas state legislature, rather than letting democracy work, packed into a van like a bunch of clowns and trundled off to Ardmore, Oklahoma–their absence preventing the quorum of lawmakers needed to conduct a vote. One of the Dems, Texas Rep. James E. “Pete” Laney, rather than taking the van, chose to fly his private plane across the Red River.

Texas Speaker of the House Tom Craddick told the house sergeant-at-arms to arrest the Dems, bring them back and make them vote (as he is authorized to do–this is why they fled the state). DeLay, who had been influential in the redistricting effort, wanted to know what kinds of options were available for law enforcement. Someone from his office contacted the Federal Aviation Administration in an attempt to find Laney’s plane, in order to assist the Texas Department of Public Safety in locating the wanted legislators.

In case you missed that: The legislators were wanted by law enforcement in the state of Texas. These runaway lawmakers were impeding the Texas government by their absence from their jobs. One hundred percent of Tom DeLay’s constituents happen to live in Texas, and it would seem reasonable that all of them have a stake in having a state government that functions.

The complaint Bell filed cites Committee on Standards of Official Conduct Advisory Opinion No. 1, claiming that DeLay abused his power when he contacted the FAA. Bell paraphrases the opinion, saying that standards of conduct require that contact with federal agencies “not be for ‘political…considerations.’”

DeLay has a solid case that upholding law and order and making sure that Texas has a working state government is in the interest of all his constituents, “irrespective of political or other considerations.” Because it is within the purview of lawmakers to contact federal agencies in the course of constituent casework, Bell’s case against DeLay falls apart.

The Texas Democrats’ behavior during the redistricting debacle was almost as disgraceful as the charge that DeLay abused his power in the course of working for his constituents; nevertheless, that episode’s damage to relations between the parties was confined to the Lone Star State. In order to prevent the tone in Washington, D.C. from getting more belligerent (if that’s even possible), Republicans should refrain from any kind of retaliation for its own sake, but more importantly the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct should dismiss this complaint before the August recess.

If so, this whole thing may blow over. The grand-jury investigation in Texas, to judge from recent accounts, does not seem to be going anywhere, and the focus of the investigation shifts every week. First the spotlight was on the Texas Association of Business, then TRMPAC, and now–according to a June 26, 2004 story in the Austin American-Statesman–a growing list of individual corporations. When Earle was asked about the American-Statesman story, he told NRO, “Anyone who has committed a crime is a target,” which suggested that, by widening his manhunt to include all criminals, he is either having difficulty mounting a prosecution against anyone or has seen Spider-man 2 too many times.

All this aside, every day DeLay’s name is associated with some kind of criminal or ethics investigation his ability to lead the U.S. House of Representatives is hampered further. Let’s hope at some point soon the Dems part ways with their kitchen sink. It might indicate they’ve run out of things to throw.

Stephen Spruiell is a Collegiate Network/NR intern.

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