The Tom DeLay scandals.

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April 7 2005 6:40 PM

The Tom DeLay Scandals

A scorecard.

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Tom's time?

Tom DeLay, the second-ranking member of the House of Representatives, has long been a bogeyman to the left for his outrageous rhetoric, strong-arm tactics, and shady dealings. The congressman's supporters and Republican colleagues had been pledging complete fealty, and stories about his dirty linen had stayed on the back pages. But if criticizing DeLay used to be suicidal, recently it's become fashionable. A new Zogby poll shows that the formerly loyal constituents of Sugar Land, Texas, have turned on DeLay, and Republicans have begun muttering about pushing him out. The telltale sign that the piranhas smell blood in the water came when Wednesday's New York Times fronted a story about the well-funded involvement of the congressman's wife and daughter in his operations. The core of the story was old and the Times would likely have buried it a year ago. But the man known as "the hammer" is turning into a nail.

Here's a scorecard of the key multiplying scandals involving DeLay. Each malefaction is rated on a scale of one to 10 for its stench and the trouble it will possibly cause.

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TRMPAC. Stench: 5. Trouble: 8.

In 2001, Tom DeLay helped to set up an organization called TRMPAC (Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee) aimed at helping the Texas GOP gain control of the state Legislature. His goal was to force a redistricting of Texas' congressional districts that would increase the Republican majority in Washington.

DeLay succeeded in sending five more Republicans to Congress. But his tactics created two problems. First, Texas has very strict laws forbidding the use of money raised from corporations in state races, and TRMPAC raised a lot of corporate money. Second, it made for one very shady deal. On Sept. 20, 2002, the director of TRMPAC sent $190,000, including money raised by corporations, to the Republican National State Elections Committee. Exactly two weeks later, that committee sent exactly $190,000 to state candidates favored by TRMPAC. Each transaction, taken alone, appears legal. Bundled together, they look like an effort to funnel corporate money into a race from which it was banned.

DeLay's defense is that he didn't know the details of what was happening in the organization, that the matching numbers of the $190,000 transfers were just a coincidence, and that the money raised from corporations was spent on administrative office expenses, which is legal in Texas legislative races. But all of those arguments have major weak spots that the experienced prosecutor on the case, Ronnie Earle, could expose. Grand juries have been secretly investigating the allegations of illegal campaign financing, and Earle has already indicted three of DeLay's associates and eight corporate donors. DeLay hasn't been indicted yet, but he could be. And if there's a trial, his indicted associates might choose to squawk about the congressman's misdeeds in exchange for less or no jail time.

Frequent Flying. Stench: 5. Trouble: 3.

House ethics rules prevent members from taking trips abroad funded by lobbyists or by "foreign agents," groups or individuals registered to do political work for foreign organizations or governments. DeLay, however, has reportedly taken at least three such trips. In 1997, he went to Russia on the dime of a peculiar company based in the Bahamas and connected to Russian oil interests. In 2000, he went to Britain, his lavish journey paid for in part by a lobbyist. In 2001, he went to South Korea, funded by a recently registered foreign agent.

DeLay faces little danger because of these trips. Other congressmen, including Democrats, have taken similar trips and the House Ethics Committee, which has chief responsibility for policing such disciplinary infractions, is currently shuttered. After the committee admonished the Texas congressman for three infractions this fall, three Republican members were forced out and replaced with DeLay allies. The committee has not met this year because Democrats are protesting the new rules the committee has to operate under, which (surprise) make it much harder to initiate investigations.

The risk for DeLay here is that more reporters will unearth more trips, and they'll perhaps find evidence that the funders happened to do particularly well when legislation they favored came before Congress. Worse, perhaps, the trips connect DeLay to the seedy world of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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