Ex-DeLay Aides a Liability?
In his 20-year rise from a backbencher to House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has been aided in ways large and small by a broad network of allies and former aides off Capitol Hill. They have helped DeLay raise record sums of money, supported his advancement of a conservative agenda and secured backing for his ascent up the leadership ladder.
In recent months, however, that network — informally known as “DeLay Inc.” — has been transformed from a behind-the-scenes asset to a public liability.
Though few of them agreed to be quoted by name for this story, several House Republican operatives on and off the Hill privately acknowledged that the recent spate of media attention has been damaging to the political fortunes of the Majority Leader — and his circle.
The net effect of those incidents has been to make some House GOP offices more wary of dealing with DeLay allies than they were before.
“There are definitely people that Members and staff are keeping on their thunderstorm watch list,” said a House GOP source. “Folks are a little more nervous than they usually would be.”
While some suggest that DeLay had simply been ill-served by people he trusted, others blame DeLay himself for this rocky stretch.
“That’s one of the problems — that they haven’t blackballed these guys,” said a House Republican strategist.
DeLay allies have been involved in a number of controversies in recent years, including:
• A 2001 trip DeLay made to Korea paid for by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a group created with the help of former DeLay Chief of Staff Ed Buckham. As a registered foreign agent, the council is banned under House rules from paying for a lawmaker’s trip.
• Questionable practices by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a DeLay ally, and ex-DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon, who are under investigation for at least $82 million in controversial payments they received from several American Indian tribes.
• A 2000 DeLay trip to Scotland under the auspices of the National Center for Public Policy Research. While DeLay has said that he believed the center paid for the trip, some reports have suggested that Abramoff picked up the tab.
• An ongoing grand jury investigation in Texas into the 2002 election activities of Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee, which was started by DeLay and run by one of his chief political advisers, Jim Ellis. Ellis and two other DeLay associates have been indicted in that case.
• A 2004 finding by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct that DeLay created “an appearance of impropriety” by attending a 2002 fundraiser with lobbyists from Westar after the energy company had given $25,000 to DeLay’s PAC. The event was organized by Westar lobbyist Drew Maloney, a former DeLay aide.
• A $1 million transfer in 2002 from the National Republican Congressional Committee to the Leadership Forum, a 527 group formed by another former DeLay chief of staff, Susan Hirschmann. The Leadership Forum returned the donations two months later amid questions about what types of activities were permissible by 527s.
• A controversial $500,000 transfer made in 1999 by the NRCC at the urging of Buckham to the U.S. Family Network, a conservative group that used the money to run issue ads. The donation helped spark a racketeering lawsuit against DeLay by House Democrats that was later dropped, and the NRCC eventually agreed to pay a $280,000 fine to the Federal Election Commission.
In response to questions for this story, DeLay spokesman Dan Allen said, “During his 20 years in Congress, Tom DeLay has compiled a historic record of achievements. This cannot be denied. The intense and microscopic scrutiny to which political adversaries and their allies are attempting to subject him and his affairs is the direct result of his successes, and the political motivations behind these criticisms also cannot be denied.
“As these situations surface, the Majority Leader and his staff and advisers review them for any merit and continue to take expeditious and appropriate actions. For anyone to attempt to apply sinister motives to any of these situations is motivated by partisanship.”
The question for DeLay is whether he will respond to his current troubles by changing the way he deals with his network of allies.
“There’s only one person [DeLay] needs to distance himself from, and that’s Ed Buckham,” said a Republican operative who has worked closely with DeLay in the past. “He’s got a lot of allies out there who have nothing to do with Buckham.”
Buckham, who did not return a call seeking comment Friday, has been linked to several of the previously mentioned episodes. In addition to the Korea trip and the U.S. Family Network, Buckham is also seen by other DeLay allies as being largely responsible for bringing Abramoff and Scanlon into the Texan’s orbit.
One current leadership aide said that while some DeLay allies may have turned into liabilities, “there are also people that are really good for this majority as a whole. I would think the risk would outweigh the reward.”
Another Republican operative agreed that all former DeLay aides should not be lumped together, pointing to Hirschmann, now a lobbyist at the firm Williams & Jensen, as an example of someone who has developed relationships that stretch beyond her former boss.
“Susan … is by herself a very talented person,” said the operative. “She’s got a lot more friends than just Tom.”
While Hirschmann, who did not respond to inquiries, has relationships with several GOP leadership offices, some other DeLay allies are less welcome. Abramoff and Scanlon were quickly labeled personae non gratae. Aides in other leadership offices said that Buckham has not been banned, though he was never a frequent visitor anyway.
Some top Republicans disputed the notion that DeLay’s network has become a liability, arguing that his relationships remain a testament to his effectiveness as a leader.
“Tom has developed over the years a great support system both inside and outside the House,” said ex-Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), a one-time leadership ally of DeLay’s who is now a lobbyist with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. “There are a lot of us on the outside who have been enthusiastic supporters.”
While the recent flurry of controversies have raised questions about how DeLay interacts with his friends in the private sector, they have also prompted a wave of caution on the Hill, according to aides, who say that Members and staffers have become more hesitant to accept gifts, trips and other blandishments than they were in the past.
“Everyone has their radar antennae up,” said a leadership aide. “Everyone is being very careful. Any meeting requests are being scrutinized to a T so that there aren’t any future implications from having a simple meeting.”
One former House aide who now works on K Street said the current wariness is part of a typical cycle of remorse in Washington.
“This happens every 10 years or so,” said the former aide. “You have this period of excess and then you have self-flagellation.”