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18 December 2014 07:24 (South Africa)
Politics

Tom DeLay: the exterminator finally gets hammered

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Politics
tom de lay main

With his conviction on two counts of money laundering, amid a slew of shady political bucks-for-ballots deals, former Texas lawmaker, Tom DeLay, has yet again proved the veracity of what another US political “big man”, Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, former California state speaker said, when he noted: “Money is the mother's milk of politics.” By BROOKS SPECTOR.

Tom DeLay, the right-wing, fire-breathing former Republican majority leader in the US House of Representatives (and former pest-control specialist) was convicted last Wednesday in a Texas state court on charges of money-laundering corporate campaign contributions of nearly $200,000 to aid Republican candidates in the Texas 2002 legislative election.

That election gave the Republicans their first majority in the Texas state legislature since the Civil War. In turn, this allowed Texas Republicans to redistrict US congressional seats in the 2004 election so as to add Republican strength in the Texas congressional delegation (contributing to the Republicans’ capture of the House of Representatives). After DeLay was convicted, he insisted, “This is an abuse of power! It’s a miscarriage of justice! I still maintain my innocence! The criminalisation of politics undermines our very system.” Right you are, Tom, especially on that last bit.

When initially indicted, DeLay resigned as majority leader in the House of Representatives and then eventually from Congress in 2006 to focus on his looming trial. Federal investigators were looking closely into DeLay’s murky dealings with now-thoroughly disgraced (and ex-con) Washington super-lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, although the justice department said DeLay would not face federal corruption charges as well as his state-level conviction.

DeLay’s rise and fall shares elements that are the staples of popular political fiction. DeLay is the small-town-boy-turned-businessman with an ideological fervour for a mythic political golden age and rails against those evil barons of Washington; a straight-shooter who vows to cleanse the capital’s “Augean Stables” (although in his case he was an income tax-dodging exterminator whose chosen killer chemical was eventually banned by federal regulations as unhealthy to children, pets and the environment).

Soon enough, however, DeLay becomes the epitome of the close embrace of money and politics, until he is undone by his own greed and eagerness for even more power. Then in the downward trajectory, he is desperate to stay in the public eye until well after his sell-by date – including a stint on a reality TV show. Over the years, DeLay has had an interesting string of nicknames. Early on, he was called “Hot Tub Tom” for his hard-partying lifestyle in Washington – the kind of thing so lushly portrayed in the film “Charlie Wilson’s War”. As his legislative tactics became increasingly hard-edged and as he rose to power, his new sobriquets became “The Exterminator” or “The Hammer” for the way he took on Democratic opponents.

Watch: Tom DeLay found guilty (Austin TV)

In DeLay’s conviction, a Democratic Party-controlled district attorney’s office, has finally ended the political career of the Republican politician who had, himself, been largely responsible for unseating a whole clutch of once-powerful Democratic politicians. While there clearly was a political edge to the case, for the most part, the basic facts were never really in dispute. Like most of these kinds of things, it is basically a case of the adage, “Follow the money,” as the informant “Deep Throat” famously told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal.

In DeLay’s case, some eight years ago, he had formed what was called a state political action committee, “Texans for a Republican Majority”, a purpose-built organisation designed to create a Republican majority in the Texas legislature. As noted earlier, this allowed Republicans to elect the first Republican speaker in the Texas House of Representatives since the 19th century. And, ultimately, these contributions helped six out of seven candidates win their respective elections, giving Republicans control of the legislature that, in turn, allowed them to push through a congressional redistricting plan in 2003, directly orchestrated by DeLay.

This committee quickly raised nearly $200,000 from corporate lobbyists, most of them not even from Texas. The problem for DeLay’s little plan was that it has been illegal in Texas since 1903 to give corporate donations directly to Texas candidates, so DeLay’s committee sent the money to the Republican national committee, which then sent the money from yet another bank account to the campaign committees of the seven Republican candidates in Texas. Clear so far?

At DeLay’s trial, Terry Nelson, the then-director of political operations for the Republican national committee in 2002, testified that one of DeLay’s political bag-men, James Ellis, had asked him to do the money swap, and Nelson added that the Republican national committee often performed the same manoeuvre for other state-level Republican party committees, but not for the political action committees that sucked up the corporate campaign contributions for further bundling and repackaging. Nelson added that Ellis told him the order in this case had come directly from Tom DeLay.

DeLay’s lawyers tried to explain that while, yes, er, uh, the whole sorry transaction was an end-run around Texas state law, it didn’t actually violate the state’s money-laundering law because the corporate money was in a totally different bank account – and that this non-corporate account had already garnered more than enough individual contributions to equal the money sent to the Texas candidates. Or as DeLay’s lawyer tried to say, aw shucks folks, “It’s different money. It’s not the same money.” Sadly, by now, too, South Africans are probably pretty familiar with these kinds of courtroom and financial antics as well.

Meanwhile, prosecutors said the plethora of bank accounts made no difference if DeLay and his associates had done this to get around the state ban on corporate contributions to campaigns in the first place. In the end, jurors deliberated for 19 hours before they came back with guilty verdicts on two charges of money-laundering.

DeLay now faces the possibility of life imprisonment, although the presiding judge could very well give him a mere slap on the wrist and sentence him to probation or cleaning toilets in public parks. The sentencing hearing begins on 20 December, so watch this space.

As soon as DeLay had been convicted, The New York Times noted the ex-congressman’s efforts were sadly part of a larger and increasingly unpleasant aspect of contemporary politics in America. "Mr. DeLay will presumably pursue multiple rounds of appeals. But whether he wins or loses personally, his larger goal of finding ways to get more corporate money into politics has already been achieved. Thanks to the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. [earlier this year], corporations are now free to donate unlimited amounts of money. They cannot give it directly to candidates, but they can give to ‘independent’ committees that run ads for or against candidates. To most viewers, ads run by these committees — as the nation saw during the midterm election campaign — are indistinguishable from those run by the candidates themselves."

Sadly, DeLay is not a stranger to the shadowy realms of ethics violations. Half a decade ago, when then-super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff was on trial for his bulk breaches of the law, two of DeLay’s aides, together with former Republican congressman Bob Ney, a clutch of White House staffers and miscellaneous other congressional aides and lobbyists were all convicted or pleaded guilty to varied corruption charges.

That larger investigation followed a tangle of charges that the various officials had accepted gifts, luxury trips and campaign donations, all while doing favours for Abramoff's clients – a generally insalubrious mix of Native American tribal and online gambling interests, as well as the Northern Mariana Islands government (a US dependency) that was trying to maintain its exemption from federal minimum wage standards. Big lobbying money going to “The Hammer” so labourers in the South Pacific could be forced to work for less than the minimum wage? That's US politics for you, folks.

The Abramoff trial cast a little sunlight on the underside of campaign financing. Jurors heard about large contributions flowing to DeLay from corporations seeking influence with him or support from him; as well as about junkets to luxury international golf resorts where DeLay rubbed shoulders with miscellaneous lobbyists in return for donations.

Moreover, as part of DeLay’s involvement with Abramoff, beyond the fancy trips for DeLay, Abramoff had raised money for his re-election campaigns, made contributions to a charity DeLay had established for foster children, paid for DeLay’s daughter to work on her father’s re-election campaigns - and even set up a retirement account for DeLay’s wife. But at least there doesn’t appear to have been a 4x4 purchased as part of DeLay’s deal.

After leaving Congress under his ethical cloud, improbably DeLay still managed a bit of a comeback, running a fund-raising vehicle for like-minded right-wing Republican candidates, as well as writing a politics blog that, among other bets and tips, had explained how Hillary Clinton would become the US president in 2008. Well, okay, nobody’s perfect. On the other hand, DeLay did correctly predict Democrats would move quickly and effectively to harness the power of the Internet and social networking for the 2008 election campaign.

Watch: Tom DeLay, a dancer

DeLay has also, over the years, become ever so slightly more introspective. In his co-authored 2007 memoir, “No Retreat, No Surrender,” DeLay admitted to his personal dark side. As he wrote, “We are all flawed and my flaw is that I can sometimes be aggressive, even mean.” Give that man a gold star for brutal honesty.

Of course, probably nothing in either his legislative or criminal career, not even his spirited opposition to the teaching of evolution, his vociferous support for Israeli policies rivalling Likud or Shas, or his advocacy of efforts to insist on extreme medical measures to keep a comatose woman, Terry Schiavo, alive despite her husband’s wishes (and in spite of DeLay’s history in preventing extreme medical measures for one of his own relatives) could have prepared the public for DeLay’s new effort to stay in the limelight. In 2009, Tom DeLay, an ex-congressman about to go on trial for corruption, joined the cast of the reality TV show, “Dancing With the Stars”. Of course, he already knew how to dance with the devil and he really could do “The Hustle”. And he had been a dancing lead in some high school musicals, nogal. Really.

The other day, New York Times’ columnist Gail Collins had some fun at DeLay’s expense, even as she pointed to a larger sad truth about contemporary politics when she wrote about the newly convicted ex-congressman’s public chutzpah. "Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, was ridiculed for doing the cha-cha on ‘Dancing With the Stars’. But you have to admit, DeLay’s decision to make a spectacle of himself on national television was a terrific game-changer.

“His performance did create the kind of uncomfortable feeling you experienced when your crusty Uncle Fred got drunk at your graduation party and tried to sing ‘My Way’. But I bet not a single person watching DeLay slide across the floor on his rhinestone-encrusted knees with that manic grin on his face was thinking: ‘Gee, I wonder how that money-laundering indictment is working out for him?’."

Collins’ observation actually points towards an understanding of the plan behind Sarah Palin’s family’s recent antics on reality TV. For many, this kind of stuff is probably even more real than reality is. Maybe the idea here is that a politician who can cha-cha, tango or shimmy, convincingly fish for trout, shoot grizzly bears or swim with the sharks is okay, after all, despite whatever nonsense comes out of their mouths. If this calculation is correct, South Africans may want to brace themselves for the chance to see Jacob Zuma on the local version of “So You Think You Can Dance”.  No, wait just a minute; haven’t we already seen him dancing on television?

But maybe the best judgement belongs to Willie Stark, the tragic anti-hero of Robert Penn Warren’s lush, poetic novel of the eternal connections between money, sex and power in politics. Stark tells his aide, Jack Burden, “Jack, there's something on everybody. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption. He passes from the stink of the dydie to the stench of the shroud. There's always something.”

And as if to prove this very point, just after the trial, one of DeLay’s aides emailed Politico, the influential Washington blog, to say, “People inside the Beltway are apprehensive since it's the sort of transaction that's been done for years by both parties. If DeLay is guilty, then both major political parties and their nominees for the last 20 years are all guilty of criminal money laundering.” Feel better about politics yet?

In the grander scheme of things, like Tony Yengeni in South Africa, Tom DeLay’s sins are smaller by comparison to the larger scandal of money’s influence on political choices - or arms deals. This past year in America, perhaps $4 billion was spent on the midterm election and some of it surely went through the kinds of channels for which DeLay is now answering. And a smaller, but still hefty amount apparently infiltrated the local political system as a consequence of the arms deal. There are also a few signs Americans are good and truly tired of this – there are efforts in New Jersey to put an end to these special-purpose political action committees.

In the face of the serious economic crises facing governments today, politicians must learn to make the tough choices (and not just responding to the highest bidder) in congruence with their conscience, something in the way the 18th century conservative English political philosopher Edmund Burke advocated, when he wrote: "… It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him…. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living…. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable."

We're pretty sure Edmund Burke wasn’t thinking of legislators like Tom DeLay who supported lower-than-minimum-wage-work in the Marianas, in exchange for a bit of help from their “friends”. DM


For more, read The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, Time, Slate, The Washington Post, Politico and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Photo: Former House Majority leader U.S. Representative Tom Delay (R-TX) walks out of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill on the day his resignation takes effect in Washington, June 9, 2006. Delay resigned from Congress after being indicted on charges of laundering contributions to Republican campaigns. REUTERS/Evan Sisley.

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Politics


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