Did Tom DeLay commit bribery?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Oct. 1 2004 7:02 PM

Defendant DeLay?

Nick Smith's bribery accusations land in the majority leader's lap.

DeLay's got deep pockets
DeLay's got deep pockets

The House Ethics Committee finally released its report about allegations by Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., that the House leadership tried to win his support for the Medicare drug bill last November by offering a $100,000 bribe. (In the end, Smith voted no.) The big news is that Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, admitted that he offered to endorse Smith's son Brad, who was running for Congress at the time, in exchange for Smith's "yea" vote on the Medicare bill. According to the Ethics Committee—more precisely, its investigative subcommittee—this is a violation of House rules and warrants "public admonishment." But it may warrant a good deal more.

The Ethics Committee wasn't able to find anyone who would admit having mentioned to Smith that his vote was worth $100,000, and Smith (for reasons that are getting clearer) now contradicts his earlier statements and says no bribe—and certainly no $100,000—was ever offered. But DeLay's statement alone is grounds for indictment. United States Code, Title 18, Section 201, "Bribery of public officials and witnesses," states that a bribe can be "anything of value." There's an exception for horse-trading confined wholly to government business—you vote for my bill and I'll vote for yours—because that's constitutionally protected. But endorsing a candidate for office is not government business. There are no House committees that vote on DeLay's endorsements, or Cabinet secretaries who issue them as regulations. DeLay doesn't even have to clear them with the House speaker (who at any rate seems to take orders from DeLay, not the other way around). When DeLay endorses someone, he's speaking for himself and his party.

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Would an endorsement by DeLay have been "of value" to Smith? You bet, and not simply because DeLay is a nationally recognized figure in the Republican Party. DeLay is well known to have access to enormous quantities of corporate cash (not all of it necessarily obtained legally). In the current election cycle, his PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority, has given out $775, 278. None of the other so-called "leadership PACs" controlled by members of Congress come close to spending this kind of money. A DeLay endorsement means big bucks. Smith acknowledged to the Ethics Committee this inescapable logical connection (thereby edging toward recanting his recantation) by admitting "he would have associated the offer of an endorsement with willingness to provide financial assistance in the form of contributions to his son's campaign." Well, duh.

Smith got a "public admonishment," too. The stated reason is that his initial accusations of bribery, which he later retracted, eroded "public confidence in the integrity of this lawmaking institution," and therefore violated a House rule requiring members to "conduct themselves at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House." This lays down the Ethics Committee's official line, which is that Smith is basically a nut who spouted untrue accusations and later came to regret them. Indeed, the report suggests that if Smith had not at first "declined to cooperate fully" with the investigation, the Ethics Committee could have avoided "a costly and time-consuming investigation." (Translation: "If you'd been a little more slick, we would have had a much easier time burying this whole thing.")

But "Smith is a nut" is not the most plausible interpretation of the facts painstakingly laid out in the report. When Smith retracted his bribery accusation, I assumed that was because the House leadership was holding Brad's congressional candidacy hostage. (Brad ended up losing the primary.) But it's just as likely that DeLay or an aide let Smith know that if Smith continued leveling the accusation, someone in the House majority leader's office just might say that Smith himself first suggested the bribe.

It may even be true that it happened that way. It is, at any rate, DeLay's version of the story. When DeLay marched over to Smith on the night of the vote—for the unmistakable purpose of getting Smith to support the Medicare bill—it was Smith, DeLay maintained, who first brought up the subject of Brad's congressional campaign. DeLay said he thought Smith was "fishing to see what I would say." Smith had collared DeLay before about endorsing and funding Brad's campaign, DeLay said. DeLay gave in and offered to endorse Brad, but, he claims, Smith answered, " 'That's not good enough,' something like that. And then he goes off … into a diatribe about how bad this bill is." This is all quite inconsistent with Smith's account. I should note that three DeLay aides told the Ethics committee that before the vote they had a discussion about offering DeLay's endorsement in exchange for Smith's vote. (They differ on whether DeLay was present.) Since DeLay recalls making his offer to Smith during the vote (and since review of a C-Span tape supports that recollection), DeLay's staff would have talked about the swap before DeLay's talk with Smith. This makes it harder to believe DeLay's claim that it was Smith, not he, who initiated the offer.

One thread dangles conspicuously in the Ethics Committee report. Although they established pretty clearly that all of Smith's various explanations for how he came to blurt out the $100,000 figure were obvious lies, the investigators were never able to find out the true explanation. Who did whisper "$100,000" in Smith's ear? The report is full of plausible suspects, including DeLay himself, but it lacks any evidence on this crucial question. You get the feeling the authors would prefer to forget this mystery ever existed.

Medicare Bribe Archive:
Aug. 4, 2004: "Brad Unbound"
April 29, 2004: "Brad's Little Problem, Part 2"
March 23, 2004: "Kalamazoo Kapitulation!"
Feb. 26, 2004: "FBI Examines Medicare Bribe"
Feb. 4, 2004: "Brad's Little Problem"
Jan. 22, 2004: "Burying the Bribe"
Jan. 8, 2004: "Bob Novak Ate My Brain!"
Dec. 23, 2003: "Now It's a Scandal"
Dec. 8, 2003: "A Drug-Company Bribe?"
Dec. 6, 2003: "Why Smith Can't Recant"
Dec. 5, 2003: "Nick Smith Recants"
Dec. 1, 2003: "Who Tried To Bribe Rep. Smith?"

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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