WASHINGTON – Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff had been friends for years, trading easily on each other’s success. One rose to the pinnacle of power in Congress. The other became the most sought-after lobbyist in town. They built a politically potent network of former aides, lobbyists and comrades-in-arms.
The question hanging over Washington on Tuesday: Could Abramoff’s plummet and plea deal drag down his longtime ally?
“A lot of people, including Mr. DeLay’s political enemies, are hoping that’s the case. But I believe they’ll be disappointed,” said DeLay attorney Richard Cullen.
“DeLay has conducted himself consistently with the standards of conduct in the House and has violated no laws. So he’s at peace in terms of where this investigation will end up, and it’s premature to jump at the conclusion that Abramoff has information that’s troubling to Mr. DeLay.”
DeLay critics and outside legal experts aren’t so sure. The financial and political ties between the men are so extensive, their histories and causes so intertwined, that some find it hard to fathom how the Texas Republican could escape as Abramoff – facing 11 years in prison and $27 million in restitution – begins to talk.
“There is no way this is good for him. How bad it will be will depend on what else we see happen,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which studies campaign finance.
In court Tuesday, Abramoff confessed to providing all sorts of favors to just one lawmaker, and it wasn’t DeLay. He told the court he’d provided the legislator, understood to be Ohio Republican Bob Ney, a “lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world-famous courses, tickets to sporting events and other entertainment,” meals at Abramoff’s upscale restaurant, and generous campaign donations – largesse he also bestowed on DeLay.
Prosecutors cited several favors Ney offered in return, including help with Abramoff’s purchase of a fleet of casino ships. Justice Department and FBI officials have offered no such examples involving DeLay and wouldn’t say if they’re digging or expect to learn of any in coming months. Abramoff and DeLay worked closely on many projects, traveling together to the Mariana Islands, Russia and the United Kingdom, ostensibly under the auspices of a conservative Washington think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research. Abramoff sat on the group’s board, and reports surfaced that two of his clients each donated $25,000 to the nonprofit a day before the Britain junket.
House rules prohibit travel paid for by lobbyists or their clients, though DeLay and other lawmakers on the trip say they had no idea where the group got the funds.
Abramoff and his partner, former DeLay press secretary Michael Scanlon – who has also pleaded guilty and cooperated with federal prosecutors – routinely boasted of their connections with the majority leader when selling their services to Indian tribes and others.
The Marianas connection could also provide investigators an interesting trail. DeLay sought to protect the garment industry on the islands, an American commonwealth in the Pacific, from U.S. labor laws.
In 1999, during a power struggle in the local legislature, two former DeLay aides, Ed Buckham and Scanlon, went to Saipan to persuade two lawmakers to switch sides in a leadership vote, dangling promises of federal largesse for which DeLay reportedly paved the way later. The favored candidate won and later awarded Abramoff a contract worth $1.6 million.
DeLay and Abramoff also collaborated closely on the K Street Project, an effort to pressure Washington’s premier lobbying firms to shun Democrats and stock their staffs with GOP loyalists. At one point the House ethics committee reprimanded DeLay for threatening retaliatory legislation against a trade group for hiring a Democrat as its top lobbyist.
Critics have raised questions about the $115,000 the congressman’s wife, Christine DeLay, was paid over four years by Alexander Strategy Group – a firm led by Buckham and other former DeLay aides that got client referrals from Abramoff – for researching the charitable preferences of lawmakers. The DeLays said the work was real and the pay justified.
As speculation bubbled about what Abramoff could offer federal authorities, there was activity involving DeLay in Austin, Texas.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle obtained subpoenas Tuesday for donations from two former Abramoff law firms – Greenberg Traurig and Preston Gates – to DeLay’s state political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority.
The grand jury, which is investigating money laundering allegations against DeLay and several lieutenants, also ordered records of campaign donations from Abramoff’s biggest lobbying client, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.