Will the hammer fall?
Once more, an ethics storm is swirling around Tom DeLay, but he's hanging tough
It takes a lot to work off a bad handle. So it says something about Tom DeLay that the scrappy Texas legislator once known as "Hot Tub Tom" has become "the Hammer," one of the most powerful Republicans to come down the pike in a long time.
It didn't happen overnight, of course. It took years, but as he accumulated more and more power, DeLay also made more than his share of enemies, and some began looking for him to slip, wondering if there would finally be a payback time for his cozy relationships with lobbyists, his fundraising schemes, and his ham-handed politics.
These days, Washington is on the edge of its seat as the Hammer faces a maelstrom of legal and ethical troubles, caught up in scandals involving former aides, eight-figure lobbyists, and political action committees. Among his woes:
Texas District Attorney Ronnie Earle has charged three leaders of Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a political action committee, with money laundering and accepting illegal campaign contributions during a successful bid to fund Republican legislative candidates in the state. Jim Ellis, a former DeLay aide and the director of his national fundraising vehicle, Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), is among those indicted. Earle has refused to rule out DeLay, a founder of and adviser to TRMPAC, as a possible target.
Documents in one of two civil lawsuits show that ARMPAC funneled money through TRMPAC to Republican candidates in Texas, a possible violation of state election laws. DeLay is the chairman of ARMPAC, which has also employed his wife, Christine.
Jack Abramoff, a longtime DeLay associate, and Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former spokesman, are being investigated by both the Senate and the Justice Department for allegedly defrauding several Indian tribes of millions of dollars. U.S. News has learned that the FBI has more than three dozen agents working on the case. One area under review is how tribal money funneled through Abramoff may have illegally benefited DeLay's political operations.
DeLay may have violated House ethics rules by taking a 2000 junket to Scotland's fabled St. Andrews golf course that appears to have been paid for by Abramoff and financed by the Indian tribes who hired him.
DeLay also faces questions about a 2001 trip to South Korea paid for by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a registered foreign agent.
Sharks. Last week DeLay came out fighting, saying he would happily appear before the House ethics committee, asserting that the trips were handled properly and calling other allegations against him "fiction and innuendo" planted by mean-spirited Democrats. That may be, but in Washington, political scandals have a momentum all their own, and right now DeLay is reaping the whirlwind. "What happens in these things," says a former top Democrat who has seen his share of Washington feeding frenzies, "is that once there's blood in the water, the sharks come out in droves."
This isn't the first time DeLay, 57, has been in hot water. In the late 1970s, when he was still drinking, smoking, and having a good old time as Hot Tub Tom, he ran afoul of the IRS, which placed several liens against his exterminator business. By 1985, DeLay had risen to the U.S. House of Representatives, taking his championship of laissez-faire economics to the national stage. By the next year he was wooing the Conservative Christian vote, having become born again. The Texan railed against environmental regulation and attacked federal funding of the arts. He won his new name, the Hammer, for his ability to push through close legislation on the backs of moderate Republicans he'd either threatened or wooed.