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DeLay Bills Top $400K in 2006

Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) legal defense fund burned through $312,000 in expenses in the first quarter of the year, paying out fees to four different law firms representing the former House Majority Leader on two different legal fronts.

When combined with the $110,000 DeLay paid out of his campaign committee to a firm in January, the new filings show he spent more than $400,000 in the first three months of the year on legal fees and expenses connected to raising money for the defense fund.

DeLay, who is facing a trial on campaign finance charges in Texas and under scrutiny by a Justice Department task force probing the affairs of ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has now shelled out $1.3 million in legal fees in less than two years, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission and the House ethics committee.

Aides to DeLay said no final decision had been made with regard to how the lawmaker will finance his mounting legal bills once he retires from the House, which is expected to happen sometime in June. But the simplest course would be to continue to raise money through a privatized version of the Tom DeLay Legal Expense Trust and raise unlimited donations without having to publicly report who the donors are.

DeLay could also choose to pay future attorneys’ fees with the leftover campaign cash from his re-election committee, which had almost $1.5 million in cash on hand as of March 31.

“No decision’s been made yet whether to close it down or keep it open,” said Brent Perry, a Houston-based lawyer who is in charge of the legal defense fund.

The fund raised $314,000 in the first quarter and went through almost that exact amount, doling out $312,000 — $280,000 to the four firms handling the various aspects of DeLay’s legal defense and another $32,000 in costs associated with raising money for and maintaining the fund.

Perry said there are currently no efforts under way aimed at raising more money for the fund, which has historically not maintained much of a cash balance and instead has doled out payments to firms as soon as money comes into the fund.

Even though he is out of leadership, DeLay continued to be as popular as ever among his colleagues, who funneled more than $104,000 into his defense account, roughly one-third of all the money he raised so far this year. Faced with $5,000 annual limits in donations to defense funds, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) managed to give $10,000 to DeLay, giving $5,000 from his leadership political action committee and $5,000 from his re-election campaign committee.

DeLay also took in $5,000 from Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), a close ally who also recently hired his own attorney to handle questions connected to his relationship with Abramoff. Former Rep. Joe McDade (R-Pa.) — who was himself indicted by federal prosecutors on corruption charges in the early 1990s but eventually defeated the allegations at trial and retired in 1998 — gave $2,000 to the defense fund.

With his trial in Texas pending, DeLay has also had to contend with increasingly large bills to firms dealing with the Abramoff matter, which has already drawn guilty pleas from the lobbyist and two former aides to DeLay. Out of the roughly $400,000 in legal bills paid out from January through March, McGuire Woods received $150,000 for the work of Richard Cullen, who has been DeLay’s lead lawyer on Abramoff questions.

In addition, another $125,000 went to Bracewell & Giuliani, which has done work on both the Texas case and the Abramoff probe. Dick DeGuerin, the lead attorney battling the money laundering accusations in Texas, received $110,000 in February from the fund.

DeLay is just one of four lawmakers to have defense funds that are actively raising money to pay legal bills to handle courtroom dealings.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who has been in a decade-long civil legal fight with House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), raised $12,000 in the first quarter. Most of that came from two $5,000 donations, one from the Teamsters and another from a wealthy Seattle donor.

McDermott paid out $10,328 in legal fees to the firm Kirkland and Ellis. McDermott’s legal bills are likely to continue to mount because last month the House ethics committee voted to approve the formation of an investigative subcommittee to examine whether the lawmaker should be punished for leaking an illegally recorded mobile-phone conversation between Boehner and other GOP leaders in 1996.

Two other Members have defense funds related to Justice Department investigations — Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and William Jefferson (D-La.) — but their financial reports had not been turned in early enough Monday for the Legislative Resources Center to process them.

Aides to Ney, who is expected to prevail in a GOP primary in his district today, said that he raised about $40,000 for his legal trust but hadn’t yet focused much on raising cash to fight potential charges in the Abramoff investigation.

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