Tauzin’s Club Fuels Exit Talk

Posted October 20, 2003 at 6:07pm

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has purchased a $1.1 million ranch on prime hunting territory in Texas to create an exclusive game club for lawmakers, lobbyists and a dozen hunting buddies.

According to newly released records, Tauzin bought the 1,500-acre hunter’s paradise through a partnership he formed with longtime political ally Wallace Henderson, now a telecommunications lobbyist with Public Strategies Inc.

Henderson does not own a share of the ranch, but the annual dues from lobbyists like him and other club members will help Tauzin cover part of the mortgage.

News of Tauzin’s purchase halfway across the country is sure to rekindle speculation that the 60-year-old plans to leave Congress shortly to take a well-paying lobbying job.

At the same time, his partnership with Henderson and other friends on K Street gives new ammunition to critics who believe the chairman has grown too cozy with corporate lobbyists who have business before his panel.

Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the Congressman, defended the purchase and said Tauzin has no plans to retire before his term as committee chairman expires at the end of 2006.

He also said that Tauzin and his personal lawyer have consulted with House ethics lawyers to ensure that “everything is being done according to the letter of the law.”

In addition, he said, Tauzin will comply with a four-page letter from the ethics committee outlining the steps he must take to comply with Congressional ethics rules.

“It’s going to be done right and it’s going to be done properly,” Johnson said.

Johnson refused to provide a copy of the letter from the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. He also declined to name the members of the club, disclose their annual dues or fully explain how the lifelong lawmaker qualified for such hefty mortgage on his $155,000-a-year salary.

He also declined to say how much Tauzin paid for the ranch.

However, land records released last week show that the property was valued at $1,095,819 two years ago. Eddie Ramirez, a property assessor with the Zavala County Appraisal District, said the ranch would be worth about $1.25 million today.

Johnson only confirmed that Tauzin had “purchased some land in Texas” and plans to create a hunting club by the end of the year. Tauzin plans to invite “a couple of lobbyists and couple of people who have helped him during his campaigns,” he added. “It’s just his buddies. There is nothing sinister going on here.”

Johnson said the Texas club will operate much like the duck-hunting club that Tauzin has run for a decade on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Although Tauzin bought the Texas ranch this spring, few details about the purchase — including the million-dollar price tag and the lawmaker’s reliance on longtime friends on K Street — were known until last week when real estate records were made public in Texas.

Those records, along with interviews with current and prospective club members, provide an illuminating picture of how a lawmaker with perhaps more influence over U.S. corporations than anyone on Capitol Hill mixes his private and public lives.

Looking West

A lifetime hunter and fisherman, Tauzin began searching for a ranch out West a year ago in order to find bigger game than his 230-acre Eastern Shore property could provide.

To aid his search, Tauzin enlisted the help of several longtime friends and hunting pals.

Among them were Lowry Mays, the chairman of Clear Channel Communications — one of the biggest players in the radio industry and a large Texas land owner himself — and former Rep. Bill Brewster (D-Okla.), a longtime Tauzin confidant and now a Washington lobbyist.

Mays, Brewster and Henderson each own property near Batesville, Texas, and steered Tauzin toward a rugged stretch of land about 90 miles southwest of San Antonio, a few dozen miles from the Mexican border.

Stretching slightly longer than the National Mall, the 1,560-acre ranch sits on the edge of the renowned Golden Triangle, a swath of brush country that breeds some of the biggest whitetail deer in the country.

“You can find just as good of a deer in Batesville as you can in the heart of the Golden Triangle,” according to Jack Becker, a local hunter with the Texas Trophy Hunter’s Association.

The flatland’s mix of brush and native pasture provides ideal terrain for rabbit, Rio Grande turkey, javelina, feral hogs and whitetail deer that grow as large as 200 pounds.

Bagging a deer that large could come with a “kill fee” of more than $20,000 at a traditional weekend hunt, which club members won’t have to pay, and would be large enough to meet the 170-point minimum to qualify for a mention in Boon and Crockett’s record books, North America’s bible of big game hunting.

In addition to trophy whitetail, the desolate terrain on Tauzin’s ranch is dotted with a pair of inexpensive shelters and a $9,000 mobile home to give weary hunters a place to rest up.

The two wood-framed barns, listed at 200 square feet and 468 square feet, were built with cinderblock floors and tin roofs. Neither has a bathroom. Together they are worth $13,000, according to land records.

Double Creek LLC

Before purchasing the ranch in April, Tauzin and Henderson founded a limited liability company — Double Creek LLC — to shield Tauzin from liability in case of an accident.

Forms filed by Tauzin with the Texas secretary of state show that the company was initially headquartered at Henderson’s lobbying firm, Public Strategies, on San Jacinto Boulevard in Austin.

Henderson and Tauzin have been friends since Tauzin served in the statehouse in Baton Rouge.

After Tauzin was elected to Congress in 1980, Henderson joined him on Capitol Hill for three separate stints as an aide before returning to the private sector.

Now with Public Strategies, Henderson lobbies for the U.S. Telecom Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, two sectors with substantial business before Tauzin’s panel.

Meanwhile, Public Strategies is registered to lobby on behalf of dozens of other corporations, including Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, SBC Communications and U.S. Tobacco.

According to Texas records, Tauzin later changed the name of Double Creek LLC to Cajun Creek LLC and moved its headquarters to the offices of a Baton Rouge law firm run by another longtime associate, Theodore Jones.

Like Henderson, Jones is one of Tauzin’s most loyal allies and a registered lobbyist representing corporate clients before the Energy and Commerce Committee.

About the same time he was helping Tauzin establish Cajun Creek LLC, Jones inked deals to lobby for a host of companies with financial stakes in the outcome of the landmark energy bill being crafted on Capitol Hill.

According to newly released lobbying forms, Jones signed up the Northeast Utilities System and the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana to work on a tribal electricity project.

Tauzin, the author of the House version of the bill, chairs House-Senate negotiations on the bill.

Jones also is registered to lobby for BellSouth and Gulf Coast Wireless, according to the forms.

A Near Million-Dollar Loan

Tauzin’s office said that Jones and Henderson had nothing to do with financing the hunting club once they established Double Creek.

“Billy owns the property. Period,” Johnson said. “Wallace was simply involved in the group that set up the club.”

But other than to say that Tauzin drew equity from his Eastern Shore property, Johnson declined to discuss how Tauzin qualified for the expensive Bank of America loan.

Johnson said that Tauzin will reveal all the details about the purchase — including the four-page letter from the ethics committee — once the hunting club is up and running later this year.

In response, public interest officials called on Tauzin to release the ethics letter.

“Something smells,” said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project.

Without financial backing, mortgage brokers say that it would be difficult for Tauzin to qualify for loan of more than $700,000.

“That’s pretty much the cutoff,” said a mortgage broker with Mercantile Mortgage, which once owned the note on Tauzin’s Maryland club.

Tauzin earns about $155,000 a year as a Member of Congress and has less than $265,000 in the bank, according to financial disclosure statements.

He also owes between $100,000 and $250,000 on the mortgage for his Eastern Shore hunting club.

However, annual dues from members of the hunting club could help boost the amount Tauzin would be eligible to borrow.

Though Tauzin’s office refuses to disclose the membership dues, ethics lawyers say that House rules require Tauzin to charge a fee that is comparable to dues at similar private hunting clubs.

Annual leases for a hunting club like Tauzin’s run about $34,500 a year, or $2,875 apiece for a dozen members, according to Becker of the Texas Trophy Hunter’s Association.

“The deer business is just absolutely going hog-wild right now,” he added.

The Bayou in the Boy

Johnson said Tauzin’s newest hunting club will be “set up just like” the one he has run for a decade in Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Members of the single-room club 115 miles east of the Capitol pay about $2,000 apiece annually to cover the costs of ducks, feed and other expenses, according to club members.

Frequent visitors to the marshland retreat include lobbyists such as Ward White, a lobbyist for BellSouth Corp., Tim McKone of SBC Communications and former Rep. Lloyd Meeds (D-Wash.), a lobbyist with Preston Gates.

But several club members have no political background at all, including a local dentist who has hunted with Tauzin for years.

“He doesn’t use it for political purposes,” said BellSouth lobbyist White.

Like the Maryland property, the Texas club will have about a dozen Members, “most of them longtime friends from Louisiana,” Johnson said. Tauzin will belong to both clubs and pay the same dues as other members.

Johnson also brushed aside questions about the club’s financial ties to lobbyists, saying that the venture is about hunting, not politics.

“Anyone who knows Billy knows that he is passionate about hunting. Some people bowl. Some people go to baseball games. He likes to hunt and fish,” Johnson said. “You can take the boy out of the bayou, but you can’t take the bayou out of the boy.”