Sunday, October 10, 2004

U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was downplaying the role he played with a group he created, Texans for a Republican Majority, even before last week's reprimands by House colleagues and last month's indictments of three associates.

PAC Investigation - DeLay denies key role in political group

Documents boast of his strategic importance, but he downplays his part.

By Laylan Copelin, Austin American-Statesman
Sunday, October 10, 2004

U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was downplaying the role he played with a group he created, Texans for a Republican Majority, even before last week's reprimands by House colleagues and last month's indictments of three associates.

"For some reason, particularly in the Texas media, it is like TRMPAC has a last name and it is called Tom DeLay," the Sugar Land Republican told The Wall Street Journal in June, referring to the group's political action committee.

Yet the committee's documents, now court records, boast of DeLay's involvement in the organization during the 2002 election and raise questions abouthis role with the committee and how much he knew about the activities of his three indicted associates, Jim Ellis, John Colyandro and Warren Robold.

A Travis County grand jury last month indicted Ellis and Colyandro on charges of laundering illegal corporate donations. Colyandro and Robold also were indicted on charges of accepting illegal contributions from corporations. The criminal investigation continues.

"This investigation isn't about me," DeLay told reporters upon hearing of the indictments.

Though DeLay has maintained that he did nothing but raise money and serve as chairman of the committee's advisory board, Republicanstate Rep. Dianne Delisi of Temple, a fellow board member, gave DeLay more credit for his efforts.

In a memo toDallas businessman Boone Pickens making a pitch for support, Delisi wrote that DeLay "has been an ardent advocate for us by raising money, making phone calls, serving as a special guest at events and providing assistance with leading strategists."

DeLay and Delisi did not return phone calls requesting comment.

Steve Brittain, DeLay's criminal defense lawyer, defended his client. "We are satisfied that Tom DeLay didn't engage in any illegal activity or direct anyone to engage in any activity that would be against the law," Brittain said.

State law generally prohibits corporate money from being spent on campaigns except for a political committee's administrative overhead such as rent and utilities. Texans for a Republican Majority spent corporate money on pollsters, phone banks and consultants, arguing that the expenses were part of the committee's overhead.

Terry Scarborough, a lawyer for Texans for a Republican Majority, dismissed the Delisi memo as "what I call 'puffing' " and said it "overstates DeLay's involvement in an attempt to raise money."

Other court documents reflect DeLay's importance to Texans for a Republican Majority, which spent $1.5 million, including $600,0000 of corporate money, to help elect the first GOP majority in the Legislature in a century and pave the way for DeLay's plan to create political districts that would elect more of his allies to Congress.

DeLay is the second most powerful Texan in Washington because of his prodigious ability to raise money nationwide through his Americans for a Republican Majority, a political committee that Ellis runs. DeLay's national committee is the biggest money-raiser among congressional leaders, and DeLay doles it out to Republican candidates across the country.

Ellis said he and DeLay brought that model to Texas in the fall of 2001.

At a November 2001 news conference in Austin, DeLay stood alongside his fellow advisory board members to announce the creation of Texans for a Republican Majority, according to a news release then.

"We stand on the cusp of holding legislative majorities in both (legislative) chambers as well as every major statewide office," DeLay's statement read. "That's our opportunity."

Copies of invitations and e-mails show that DeLay helped raised money in Washington and Texas.

At least five times, DeLay traveled to Texas on behalf of the committee, mostly to raise money, and he was accompanied to Austin at least once by Robold, whom DeLay said he has known for 20 years.

Texans for a Republican Majority paid DeLay's daughter, Dani DeLay Ferro, more than $27,000 to organize events such as the group's fund-raising kickoff with then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris at Austin's Hyatt Regency on Jan. 16, 2002.

In June 2002, DeLay headlined a two-day golf tournament at a Virginia mountain resort, the Homestead, for a group of about 20 energy company executives just as Congress was finalizing important energy legislation. The event was a joint fund-raiser for Texans for a Republican Majority and Americans for a Republican Majority. Delay, his energy staffer and the executives played golf, ate lunch and dinner together, and discussed issues over the two days.

Two of the companies that donated money from that event, Westar Energy Inc. and the Williams Cos., are among the eight corporations that a Travis County grand jury indicted on charges of making an illegal contribution. It was the same grand jury that indicted DeLay's associates.

Last week the U.S. House ethics committee, investigating allegations surrounding the golf tournament, also reprimanded DeLay for creating the appearance of giving energy executives special access to him while Congress was considering energy legislation.

In an e-mail, a Westar executive asked why the Kansas-based company was giving money to Texans for a Republican Majority. Douglas Lawrence, a Westar vice president, responded that DeLay is a U.S. House leader and that "his agreement is necessary before the House conferees can push the language we have in place in the House bill."

A lobbyist for the Williams Cos., an Oklahoma-based energy provider, knew whose attention she wanted. She sent the company's $25,000 check to an Austin address for Texans for a Republican Majority but addressed the cover letter to "Dear Congressman DeLay."

DeLay also tried to raise noncorporate money from Austin lobbyists, but that experience might indicate why Texans for a Republican Majority had to rely so heavily on corporate money. On July 29, 2002, DeLay met Austin lobbyists at what was billed as "a private meeting with Tom DeLay."

It was poorly attended. Eleven lobbyists signed the sign-in sheet, including former Austin state Rep. Terral Smith, who at the time lobbied for the law firm of Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP.

Smith said then-Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat fighting to maintain a Democratic majority, had warned lobbyists not to attend. Smith said he recommended that his law firm not donate to DeLay's committee.

"I didn't know what we'd get for it," Smith said. "It was my belief, if you are handing out money to candidates, do it yourself so you can get the credit."

Most of the $600,000 in corporate contributions at the heart of the criminal investigation was raised in Washington by Robold calling on lobbyists representing companies with issues before Congress. Even then, Robold had to give some corporate donors a letter from a lawyer for Texans for a Republican Majority assuring them they could give corporate money and it would not have to be disclosed to the public.

But Texans for a Republican Majority did not leave the fund raising to just Texans or DeLay's associates in Washington.

In an Aug. 12, 2002, e-mail, an Austin-based consultant for the committee asked U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, to headline a fund-raiser for Texans for a Republican Majority. Though the event never occurred, the e-mail indicated the consultant was acting at the direction of Ellis and from a suggestion by DeLay that Tauzin might help.

At some fund-raisers, Texans for a Republican Majority advertised that it was soliciting corporate donations.

On Aug. 19, 2002, DeLay headlined a fund-raising luncheon at Houston's Petroleum Club. The invitation read, "Corporate checks are acceptable." Before the luncheon, according to committee documents, DeLay was to meet privately with a group called the finance committee for Texans for a Republican Majority.

Even when DeLay was not headlining fund-raisers, Ellis, Colyandro and Robold often invoked his name to solicit support, including planning a trip to Texas by U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to meet with energy company officials.

In a Sept. 27, 2002, e-mail to Colyandro, Robold quoted the secretary's assistant as saying the energy official was considering a trip to Texas just before or after the election.

"His message to me seemed quite sincere at helping out in any way they could to support Congressman DeLay," Robold wrote. "I would put together a letter that focuses on TRMPAC and DeLay's role as well as the strong energy support in Texas from local, regional and national companies. I believe they will be responsive."

Jeanne Lopatto, a spokeswoman for Abraham, said that the energy secretary sometimes campaigns for candidates but that no record of a trip to Texas for the fall of 2002 can be found.

"It didn't happen," she said.

Though Delay insists he knew nothing about Texans for a Republican Majority's day-to-day operations, he sometimes was called on to brief would-be donors on the committee's efforts.

Susan Lilly, an Austin-based fund-raiser for the committee, told donors in an e-mail that DeLay would brief them in a 15-minute conference call on Oct. 8, 2002.

"Congressman DeLay will join us for a brief conference call to update everyone on TRMPAC's efforts to date and to discuss our strategy for victory in the final weeks of the campaign," she wrote.