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Saturday, March 12, 2005

Oh, The Ethical Challenges of Tom DeLay

This report from today's Washington Post has to add to the woes of ethics challenged Tom DeLay.

According to the article, the peripatic House leader accepted a junket to England from the highly successful but equally ethics challenged Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The trip was paid for with funds from a non profit organization called the National Center for Public Policy Research, which Abramoff heads. The purpose of the trip was listed in federal ethics disclosure forms as "educational". While in England, DeLay did meet with Margaret Thatcher to discuss conservative policies. But he also played golf at St. Andrew's golf course, where Abramoff is a member.

It's not unusual for members of Congress to combine business and pleasure on these overseas junkets and virtually all congressmen take them. Often real work and study do go on, but so do shopping trips and entertaining on the side.

Personally, I'm not a Puritan and if hardworking folks kick back a little in the evening while on an official business trip, it doesn't offend me (and really, they all are hardworking; whether you love or hate their politics, these people spend twelve hours a day working). As long as they actually conduct the official business they say they are over there to do, there's no reason to deny them some personal, recreational time. Especially since they usually take these trips when Congress is not in session, so they are really on their own time. And the taxpayer isn't funding it. The big issue, though, is who is funding it and whether their generous financing raises questions of conflict of interest.

The problem, for DeLay, isn't the trip per se. It appears that he did indeed have some meetings with British conservatives to discuss the Thatcher Administration and her policies and reforms in the eighties. So, yes he did conduct official, educational business as listed on his disclosure form.

Where DeLay runs into trouble is over who actually funded the trip. Although it was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, the question is where that organization originally got the funds they used to pay for DeLay's trip.

It turns out they got the money from two gambling groups, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which runs profitable gambling casinos, and eLottery, a Connecticut firm that provides Internet services to state lotteries. They each coughed up $25,000 to the National Center for Public Policy Research for the DeLay trip to England.

In addition to the fact that the funding source for the trip was most likely inappropriate, the timing is turning out to be an embarrassment too. It seems that two weeks after the trip, DeLay, along with 43 Republicans and 114 Democrats, helped kill the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. This bill was opposed by both the groups that funded his trip.

Although the whole thing is now under investigation, it's going to be difficult to actually make a case that DeLay violated either the law or any ethics regulations, although he came right up to the line on both.

Any case for ethics violation hinges on whether DeLay actually knew, or could reasonably be expected to know, who truly funded his trip. As his staff claims, the National Center for Public Policy Research claims they paid for it. How, they ask, can they be expected to know that the funding really came from the two other groups that promote gambling interests rather than the Center?

They've got a point. From the outside, and with anybody other than DeLay, you would have to give the elected official the benefit of the doubt. In addition to DeLay claiming that he didn't know the funding came from the two gambling groups, both those groups also claim they didn't know the money they gave to the National Center for for Public Policy Research went to fund DeLay's trip. So that leaves only Abramoff and his group holding the bag for this. At worst, all you could prove is that Abramoff was guilty of money laundering to pay for the DeLay trip. Both the other principals are denying any knowledge of who paid what to whom with regard to the the trip.

Nevertheless, this has got to hurt DeLay politically. Even if the man doesn't go to jail, where he actually belongs, voters probably are going to view this with a jaundiced eye. After all, a pattern is emerging that DeLay is the force behind illegal funding and political activity associated with the Texas redistricting effort last year. All the groups being investigated for illegal activity link back to him. Now, he's caught accepting money from gambling interests to go on expensive junkets overseas. And, although he portrays himself as a long-term opponenet of the expansion of gambling interests, he helps kill a bill that would have curtailed gambling. This is a bill that true opponents of gambling supported and that the gaming industry opposed. At very least, even if you want to give this guy the benefit of the doubt on everything else, he's clearly a hypocrite.

Don't forget, a major portion of DeLay's support comes from the morals crowd down in Texas. And most of them abhor gambling. Somehow, I don't believe it's wishful thinking to believe that all this is bound to catch up with him and take its toll.

A smart, centrist Texas Democrat could go far with this issue.

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