As "Still the One" boomed from the loudspeakers, shaking the silverware in the Washington Hilton ballroom Tuesday, the most powerful Republican in Congress, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, appeared on the stage before more than a thousand Republican faithful -- a martyr scourged and flayed by evildoers for his purity of heart. It was his enemies who had the dirty hands. The Democrats are "without power" and "have put style above substance, politics over people, and partisanship over everything." Immediately after being cheered, DeLay held a press conference to denounce the press as purveyors of "fiction and innuendo."
The uncertain fate of the majority leader, known as "The Hammer," and to the Republican members and lobbyists in Washington as "the concierge of Capitol Hill," threatens to undermine the Bush administration's agenda; the political machine DeLay has built by allying special interests, lobbyists and Republicans; and the Republican dominance of Congress. Conservative leader Paul Weyrich pronounced that defending DeLay is nothing less than a life-or-death matter -- "spiritual warfare."
Not once at this Republican conference on tax reform did DeLay mention that he had just minutes earlier escaped from another of his ethical travails. On a party-line vote, the House had just defeated a Democratic measure to create a bipartisan task force "to restore public confidence in the ethics process."
Three times last year DeLay was rebuked by the House ethics committee. But DeLay has more to worry about. Three of his closest aides in Texas are standing trial for criminal campaign-finance violations involving funneling $2.5 million in illegal corporate money from his political action committee to Republican candidates for the state Legislature. (Afterward, the Legislature redistricted congressional seats to eliminate Democrats and consolidate Republican control of the House.)
In response to the possibility that he may face trial himself, DeLay tried to force the House to abolish a GOP rule that requires leaders to step aside temporarily if indicted. But members faced an uproar in their districts and DeLay had to abandon his gambit. As the web of grand juries and trials entangling his closest political associates spreads, his self-protective tactics have become more frantic. Last month, he purged those Republicans from the House ethics committee who had any Hamlet-like hesitations about suppressing further investigations into his activities.
DeLay's troubles reveal the anatomy of his power, known from Texas to Washington as DeLay Inc. By controlling the majority in the House, DeLay has been able to enforce discipline on the vast army of lobbyists, law firms and trade associations in Washington. His K Street Project, named after the nondescript street where many of the lobbyists maintain their offices, attempts to ensure that Democrats will not be hired by lobbyists and law firms, which will kick in maximum campaign contributions or else let their clients suffer the consequences.
In 1999, DeLay received a "private rebuke" from the House ethics committee for punishing the Electronic Industries Alliance for hiring a Democrat to head its Washington office. DeLay sabotaged trade bills that would have benefited the EIA, and soon the group hired a former House Republican staffer, who arranged contributions to DeLay's political action committee. One prominent Republican lobbyist confided to me that DeLay personally upbraided him for hiring a Democrat in his firm. The Republican majority is thus financially supported through strong-arm tactics and quid pro quos, and pursues policies that always serve the demands of special interests -- from the pharmaceutical companies on Medicare, to credit card firms on bankruptcy, to oil, gas and coal companies on energy.
But DeLay's methods are being exposed to daylight. In a civil trial filed by defeated Democratic congressional candidates in Texas against DeLay's political action committee, new documents revealed last week proved he had created the PAC and was directly involved in raising corporate donations that are illegal under Texas law. At a recent press conference DeLay tried to brush aside the indictments of his aides by the Travis County prosecutor as "frivolous" and a "joke." But the prosecutor, when asked, has refused to rule out indicting DeLay.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has impaneled a federal grand jury to hear testimony into possible fraud and public corruption by one of the Washington lobbyists closest to DeLay, Jack Abramoff, and his business partner, public relations executive Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former press secretary. That investigation might yet encompass two other DeLay allies, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, another business partner of Abramoff's, and Grover Norquist, a lobbyist who organizes conservative groups behind DeLay's initiatives and who has also profited from his dealings with Abramoff. Stalled before the House ethics committee are investigations into trips DeLay took to South Korea and Britain, the latter financed by Abramoff. Both those investigations involve the central figure of DeLay's former chief of staff, now a lobbyist, Ed Buckham.
"I go about my job," DeLay told reporters, trying to distance himself. "Jack Abramoff has his own problems. Any other questions?" In an earlier statement, obviously crafted by his attorneys, DeLay said, "If anybody is trading on my name to get clients or to make money, that is wrong and they should stop it immediately." He's shocked, shocked!
DeLay's suggestion that Abramoff is his most casual acquaintance was belied by his fulsome tribute to him on the occasion of DeLay's trip in 1995 to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. protectorate in the Pacific, one of Abramoff's clients. Abramoff lobbied for garment factories there to be exempt from U.S. labor laws guaranteeing the federal minimum wage. After Abramoff provided an all-expenses-paid visit, DeLay led the successful charge making island sweatshops safe from wage, hour and immigration laws. DeLay wrote Abramoff's client: "When one of my closest and dearest friends, Jack Abramoff, your most able representative in Washington, D.C., invited me to the islands, I wanted to see firsthand the free-market success and the progress and reform you have made." Years later, an investigation by the Marianas public auditor discovered that Abramoff's law firm had operated "without a valid contract."
Abramoff's connection to DeLay was forged the instant Republicans won the Congress in 1994. DeLay declared he would run for party whip and Abramoff backed him. "He's someone on our side," said Buckham. "He has access to DeLay." And it was none other than Buckham who had brought in Abramoff.
In 2000, Abramoff paid for DeLay, his wife, Christine, and Buckham and his wife to visit London and stay at the Four Seasons Hotel. A year later, Buckham got the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council to pay for a trip to Seoul by DeLay and his wife. Buckham, in fact, was the founder of the council, whose address is the same as his lobbying firm, and is a registered foreign agent. It is illegal for House members to accept travel expenses from either registered foreign agents or lobbyists. Both these trips are awaiting investigation before the paralyzed House ethics committee.
Buckham is not only DeLay's former chief of staff but also his pastor. (Buckham, a nondenominational evangelical, doesn't preside at a church.) DeLay's wife was put on Buckham's lobbying firm's payroll from 1998 to 2002. And Buckham has also hired Tony Rudy, DeLay's former general counsel, and Karl Gallant, former executive director of DeLay's political action committee.
I first encountered Jack Abramoff in 1985 when I was a national staff reporter for the Washington Post. He was then the executive director of a conservative organization called Citizens for America, created by Lewis Lehrman, the drugstore mogul, who had been defeated running for governor of New York against Mario Cuomo in 1982. President Reagan's backers encouraged Lehrman to build a group that would campaign for his program. Using this vehicle, Lehrman believed he could become a Republican powerhouse. He hired the former leaders of the College Republicans to run it --Abramoff and his pal, Grover Norquist. But as I reported in the Washington Post, Lehrman belatedly discovered that he had been "boxed out of the bookkeeping." The $3 million budget had been "gutted," as one of the group's officers explained to me. Abramoff and Norquist had held "one big party" and "gone hog wild." They were fired and the group went under. It was the beginning of Abramoff's brilliant career.
A year later, in 1986, Abramoff emerged as chairman of the International Freedom Foundation, which was secretly financed with $1.5 million a year from the apartheid South African government. He also produced a pulp anticommunist action movie, "Red Scorpion." By 1994, with the Republicans triumphant in Congress, the law firm of Preston Gates announced Abramoff as a lobbyist who "maintains strong ties to Speaker Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom Delay and [House] Republican Policy Committee Chairman Chris Cox and their staffs." Thomas Edsall wrote in the Washington Post: "In less than a decade, Abramoff's ties to Republican congressional leaders and powerbrokers in the conservative movement catapulted him into the highest ranks of Washington lobbyists. By 2003, Abramoff's clients -- including the Business Roundtable, Atofina Chemicals, Humana, Primedia Inc. and tribal clients -- paid his law firm $11.57 million in fees, one of the highest such sums in Washington." Norquist and DeLay were among Abramoff's biggest promoters. "What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs," Norquist said in 1995. "Then this becomes a different town."
Teaming up with DeLay's former press secretary, Scanlon, Abramoff charged Indian tribes seeking help for their casinos a total of $66 million in fees. He directed them to funnel money to a variety of Republican groups, including Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and DeLay's political action committee. With Indian money flowing into Republican coffers, DeLay declared in 1995 that "people recognize that Jack Abramoff has been an important part of this transition." Abramoff also turned for help to another old College Republican friend, Ralph Reed, who was paid $4.2 million between 2001 and 2003 to organize through his consulting firm (Century Strategies) Christian constituencies against Indian gambling interests that competed with Abramoff's Indian clients. (Reed's front groups also received funds from Indians.)
One tribe, the Tigua in Texas, whose casino was under siege from Reed's lobbying, felt compelled to seek help from the main Republican lobbyist for Indian tribes, Abramoff. On Feb. 6, 2002, Abramoff e-mailed Scanlon under the subject line "I'm on the phone with Tigua": "Fire up the jet, baby, we're going to El Paso!" Scanlon replied: "I want all their MONEY!!!" Abramoff e-mailed Reed: "I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah!!" When the El Paso Times ran the story "450 Casino Employees Officially Terminated," Scanlon e-mailed it to Abramoff: "This is the front page of today's paper while they will be voting on our plan!" Abramoff wrote back: "Is life great or what!!!!" (You can read all the e-mails here.) The Tigua paid $1.8 million in fees, but in the end Abramoff and Scanlon failed to get their casino reopened. "A rattlesnake will warn you before it strikes," said the Tigua leader. "They did everything behind our backs."
When the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs launched an investigation last year and Abramoff took the Fifth Amendment at its hearings, his law firm fired him. Still, Abramoff was honored by the Bush campaign as a "Pioneer" for raising more than $100,000 in 2004.
But the revelations continue. Last week Newsweek reported that the FBI is investigating $2.5 million that passed through a conservative think tank to the bank accounts of Abramoff and Scanlon. According to Newsweek, "The payments to the National Center for Public Policy Research were meant for a PR campaign promoting Indian gaming, center officials said." DeLay, who has signed fundraising letters for the center, was also the recipient of its largess -- two lavish foreign trips, one of them costing $70,000 to play golf at St. Andrews in Scotland. As it happens, he was accompanied on the trip by Abramoff, a member of the center's board.
The federal grand jury has been calling witnesses in the Tigua case for months. The FBI is looking into the curious case of the National Center for Public Policy Research. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee continues its inquiries. The civil case against DeLay's operation in Texas proceeds. The first of several criminal cases in Travis County focusing on his political action committee has begun. The House ethics committee has standing complaints before it on DeLay's foreign trips. Meanwhile, the corruption of public ethics is defied by sanctimonious appeals to the higher morality of "spiritual warfare."
About the writer
Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton and the author of "The Clinton Wars," is writing a column for Salon and the Guardian of London.
Read more of Salon's coverage of the House majority leader.