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.

The Abramoff Muck. Stench: 6. Trouble: 8.

DeLay and Abramoff are old friends and allies. Now Abramoff is one of the most toxic men in Washington. John McCain is investigating him, as is the Department of Justice for allegedly bilking Native American tribes out of tens of millions of dollars while working for them as a lobbyist. (Read this Slate "Assessment" for more about Abramoff and his penchant for referring to his patrons as "troglodytes.") It's almost certain that some of the documents subpoenaed will cause trouble for DeLay. There's even speculation in Washington that McCain is leading the investigation partly to get DeLay and thereby spare the Republican Party his hard-edged tactics and policies.

The Ethics Committee's Docket. Stench: 9. Trouble: 2.

Before the House Ethics Committee was waylaid, it admonished Tom DeLay on three different fronts last year. The first was for appearing to offer a bribe to fellow Republican Rep. Nick Smith to win his support for the closely contested Medicare reform bill. The second  was for soliciting donations from a company called Westar Energy just as the House considered a bill of crucial import to the company. The third was for using a federal agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, to track down Democratic members of the Texas Legislature who were fleeing the state to block a vote regarding redistricting (see No. 1 above).

Each of these infractions was serious enough that the then-somnolent, now-comatose Ethics Committee was willing to act. At this point, however, the cases are probably finished. The Justice Department could investigate any of them, and it might already be quietly doing so. But, most likely, DeLay got away with a slap on the wrist.

Family Circus. Stench: 3. Trouble: 2.

As revealed in Wednesday's New York Times—to DeLay's fury, as he expressed today—his wife and daughter have long been on the payroll of several of the political organizations he controls. Friends and family of congressmen have done this kind of work for a long time, but they don't normally rake in the sums that Christine DeLay and Danielle DeLay Ferro did: $500,000 in four years.

The payments sound suspicious, but the story will as likely as not blow over. It allows DeLay to play the victim while defending his family's honor; most important, the key issue is whether the two women received a fair day's pay for a fair day's work—which they probably did. Ferro and Christine DeLay clearly put in long hours for their man; they play a major role in what is known in Washington as DeLay, Inc. They will probably go down only if the whole organization goes down.

And that, of course, is the real danger for Tom DeLay. It's possible that one known bad act, particularly TRMPAC, could do him in. It's also possible that he'll be felled by a misdeed that hasn't been uncovered yet—for example, dirt could come out of DeLay's nonprofit foundation for orphans, which critics charge serves as a backdoor for unregulated donations to him. The much greater risk, though, is that the parade of scandals in its entirety will lead his colleagues to vaporize him one night. DeLay can ask Sen. Trent Lott what that feels like.

Nicholas Thompson is a senior editor at Legal Affairs.

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