Hammered

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In politics, the smallest things can be the most symbolic. Consider
what happened last week, just after a freshly indicted Tom DeLay
stepped down from his position as House Republican majority leader
and Republican Whip Roy Blunt leapt into his former post. The day
after the indictment, rumors flew that Blunt would be moving from
his second-floor Capitol suite into DeLay's first-floor digs--which
came as news to DeLay and other top Republicans. "The ink wasn't
even dry on The Washington Post," huffs a former top GOP staffer.
It wasn't just the speed of Blunt's would-be move that raised
eyebrows, but his presumed motive. Republicans recalled that, when
DeLay rose from whip to majority leader in 2003, he kept the same
office. That allowed Blunt, who succeeded DeLay, to claim the
swanky suite of the exiting majority leader, Dick Armey. But, last
week, he wasn't content to stay there. As the former staffer
explains: "Roy was in the office of the last majority leader. But he
wanted to be in the office of this majority leader." (DeLay,
meanwhile, now toils in his plebian district office.) Blunt wound
up staying put, and his office insists there was no plan to move.
But the gossip about the pushy gesture reflected the early
conventional wisdom that, despite GOP claims to the contrary, DeLay
was highly unlikely to reclaim his old leadership post.But, if the conventional wisdom is right, it's right for the wrong
reasons. A surprising number of Republicans truly expect DeLay to
beat the charges and thereby make a comeback--and not without
reason. As many of them note, the indictment brought by Texas
prosecutor Ronnie Earle lacks specifics, and the campaign finance
machinations that it alleges were criminal were vetted by
hyper-cautious DeLay lawyers. "Everyone in the [GOP] conference
agrees that this Ronnie Earle stuff is a bum deal," says a
Republican lobbyist close to House leaders. Earle's standing also
took a hit this week when he brought a second indictment that
appears to correct potential flaws in his first one-- lending
ammunition to critics who call him a partisan bumpkin. "If this
thing gets cast aside a la the Kay Bailey Hutchison indictment"--an
Earle case that fell apart in 1994--"then it becomes pretty
difficult for [DeLay] not to reassume the mantle of power," says
the lobbyist.

Unfortunately for DeLay and the loyal optimists around him, the real
threat to his career doesn't lie with the Earle indictment. It lies
with the ongoing Justice Department and House ethics committee
investigations of DeLay's super- lobbyist buddy Jack Abramoff. That
story has been pushed off the front pages by the drama of Earle's
criminal charges. But it could make Earle's outrage over a campaign
finance technicality look downright trivial. "That's potentially
more dangerous than the Ronnie Earle stuff," says one former
Republican leadership aide sympathetic to DeLay. Republicans who
understand that know Tom DeLay really is finished.

Aclear sign of how poisonous the Abramoff investigation has become
for DeLay came this week in the unlikely form of a British
newspaper story. The Daily Mirror reported that Justice Department
officials had asked British police to question former Prime
Minister Margaret Thatcher about a visit DeLay paid to her in
London in May 2000. At the time, DeLay was on a ten-day golf junket
to Great Britain with Abramoff, ostensibly paid for by a think tank
called the National Center for Public Policy Research (although it
appears that Abramoff steered money to the group, effectively
funding the trip through his Indian casino clients). Congressmen
are only supposed to take such trips for business, not pleasure,
and, in a March statement, the National Center avowed that the trip
involved "significant policy meetings," including ones with Thatcher
and some Scottish politicos. As the trip came under scrutiny this
spring, one person who traveled with DeLay and Abramoff told the
Post that DeLay discussed Thatcher's "efforts to help end the cold
war," as the paper put it. But, this week, Thatcher's office told
the Mirror that "Lady Thatcher met Mr. DeLay as one politician
meeting another. It was in no way a business meeting." (Justice
officials are also seeking information from one of DeLay's Scottish
hosts, Tory Leader Brian Monteith.)

These inquiries make clear that Justice Department investigators are
keenly interested in DeLay's personal role in the Abramoff saga,
and not just in whether the lobbyist defrauded his lucrative Indian
tribal clients. Indeed, the recent arrest of David Safavian, the
General Services Administration's (GSA) former chief of staff and a
former Abramoff colleague--who was charged with helping Abramoff
try to acquire a plot of federally owned land--makes quite clear
that the Justice Department is pursuing a public corruption case.
This new emphasis is reflected in an internal British government
memo leaked to the British press last week: "US officials are
investigating whether Abramoff was involved in obtaining
legislative assistance from public officials in exchange for
arranging and underwriting trips to the UK" (italics added). That
interpretation of Justice Department motives fits with passages from
the affidavit filed last month against Safavian: It cites a 2002
trip the former GSA official took with Abramoff and Ohio
Representative Bob Ney--clearly showing that Justice Department
prosecutors are interested in the true purpose of Abramoff's
junkets.

Most devastating for DeLay would be if the government could prove
bribery: a direct quid pro quo in which DeLay carried legislative
water for Abramoff in return for a junket. Given that DeLay and
Abramoff were longtime personal friends and political allies, but
isolating specific favor-trading beyond the two men's symbiotic
relationship won't be easy. But, even without proof of such a clear
transaction, DeLay could be vulnerable to prosecution under what is
known as federal "gratuity law," which requires a lower standard of
evidence for conviction but still brings a penalty of up to two
years in prison. (Bribery can bring a 15-year sentence.) "Federal
gratuity law is extraordinarily broad," says former federal
prosecutor Seth Rodner of the Tampa- based firm Fowler White Boggs
Banker.

A gratuity-law prosecution might only require the government to show
that Abramoff had some business interest in which DeLay was in a
position to help. The feds would not need smoking-gun proof like,
say, an e-mail from DeLay promising a House vote in exchange for a
golf trip. For instance, in a 2001 case involving corruption by a
Florida housing official, the Justice Department argued that, if an
official accepted a gift from someone with an identifiable business
interest, "the jury is free to find that a criminal violation
occurred, even with no evidence of wrongdoing, inflated contract
prices or other suspect dealings." Two of the three defendants were
convicted. At the time of DeLay's British junket, Abramoff had
countless business interests before DeLay's House, from bills that
might regulate his gambling clients to proposed labor laws
threatening his sweatshop patrons in the Pacific Marianas Islands.
In that context, the 2000 British golf trip alone could be grounds
for gratuity charges against DeLay.

Even if DeLay can survive the Justice Department's investigation, he
will still have to contend with the House ethics committee. The
committee is widely expected to investigate DeLay's British junket
and another he took with Abramoff to Moscow in 1997. The
investigation was stalled for months by a partisan fight over
committee staffing that has now been resolved. If DeLay isn't
caught up in any indictment that Justice brings against Abramoff,
which could come as early as this month, Democrats will push the
committee to act promptly, meaning that ethics judgments against
DeLay would likely come down in the middle of next year--just as
the run-up to the midterm congressional elections is reaching a
fever pitch.

It's hard to imagine how Republicans who fully grasp these scenarios
could want Tom DeLay to return to leadership. Better to have him
sidelined now--even if many believe he will continue to effectively
run the House from his humble Cannon office. DeLay still has an
encyclopedic understanding of his caucus's members, which is
crucial to planning floor votes. "He knows all their districts as
well as they do," says one lobbyist. In the short term, Republicans
are understandably in denial about giving up DeLay's expertise and
proven political track record. But, once they're done fuming about
Ronnie Earle and take a cold-eyed look at what the future holds,
they'll probably realize that Roy Blunt is likely to get Tom
DeLay's office after all.

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