WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) often plays defense in public in his fight against allegations of ethical misconduct, saying he didn't know about specific fund-raising practices under investigation in Texas or groups in Washington that paid for his travel.
Behind the scenes, though, the House majority leader has gone on offense like few public figures before him. With his blessing, Republican leaders remade House ethics rules (search) and the committee that reprimanded him last year, inserting allies and policies more favorable to his circumstances.
He also has devised a blame-the-Democrats strategy, portraying his accusers as politically motivated while saying, "I have yet to be found breaking any House rules."
"All they can do is try to tear down the House and burn it down in order to gain power," DeLay said recently of the Democrats.
Charles Tiefer, a former congressional lawyer and now a University of Baltimore law professor, said DeLay has been far more aggressive than former House Speakers Newt Gingrich and Jim Wright, who never attempted to reshape the ethics process when they were engulfed in controversy.
DeLay has "already succeeded in using his political strength to protect himself" by changing the ethics rules and replacing committee members, Tiefer said. Efforts to portray Delay as a political victim aim "to undermine the case against him in the press, because that's how he maintains his party's support," Tiefer added.
Meanwhile, DeLay has said he hadn't known key facts that have come out concerning important issues in the allegations.
For instance, the Texas Republican says he wasn't aware that the Korea-United States Exchange Council had registered as a foreign agent three days before he traveled to South Korea at the group's expense in August, 2001. Lawmakers are barred from accepting trips from foreign agents.
"When the invitation was extended and the trip planned, they were not registered" as an agent of South Korea, DeLay spokesman Dan Allen said.
Likewise, DeLay said he didn't know how the National Center for Public Policy Research (search) paid for his trip to Britain in 2000. The Washington Post reported that an Indian tribe and a gambling services company donated money to the group for the trip. The newspaper also reported the donations came two months before DeLay voted against gambling legislation opposed by the tribe and the gambling firm.
Last year, he told the House ethics committee he didn't recall having conversations about an energy bill with energy company executives who attended a DeLay golf fund-raising event in 2002. That contradicted the account of two executives. The committee said subsequent documents backed the executives, and the panel rebuked DeLay for creating "an appearance that donors were being provided special access to you regarding the then-pending energy legislation."
The ethics committee last year also rebuked DeLay for intervening with federal aviation authorities to track down Texas Democratic lawmakers during a redistricting controversy, and for offering to support the congressional candidacy of a House member's son in return for the lawmaker's vote on Medicare legislation.
House Republican leaders responded to those rebukes this year by dumping the Republican ethics committee chairman along with two GOP committee members who voted to admonish DeLay.
Two of the new GOP members have contributed to DeLay's legal defense funds, and one of them raised money for a Texas political committee that could be investigated by the ethics committee in the future.
In Texas, a state criminal investigation is under way into the fund-raising practices of Texans for a Republican Majority. DeLay helped start the group and has raised money for it.
Democratic prosecutor Ronnie Earle in Austin is investigating whether the committee raised corporate money in violation of Texas law. Three of DeLay's political associates have been indicted.
DeLay accuses Earle of "trying to criminalize politics," and says while he raised money and made appearances for the group he was never involved in the group's day-to-day operations.
Several memos introduced in a civil court trial in Austin suggest a more substantial role.
For instance, TRMPAC fund-raiser Warren RoBold wrote in an August 2002 e-mail that he had asked the Texas committee's executive director to create a "top 10 list of givers and let me call them to ask for large contribution. I would then decide from response who Tom DeLay others should call."
In a September 2002 e-mail between RoBold and Drew Maloney, a Washington lobbyist and former legislative director for DeLay in the House, Maloney said he had two checks from Reliant Energy. "Will deliver to T.D. next week probably," the e-mail said.
Democrats also question whether DeLay made decisions on legislation because of his relationship with Jack Abramoff (search), a lobbyist who represented gambling interests and Indian tribes who own casinos. Abramoff is under federal investigation.
DeLay's defense: If his name came up with Abramoff's clients it wasn't his own doing. "What I can tell you is that if anybody is trading on my name to get clients or to make money, that is wrong and they should stop it immediately," DeLay said.