Sweet Charity

For years Tom DeLay has used nonprofits to help himself. Now the heat is on.

On that day last September, Congressman Tom DeLay and his wife, Christine, showed they can still mount the perfect photo op. She wore blue; he (and her fingernails) wore red. And they both flashed the smiles of political veterans.

The occasion was a big one. After a few years of talking, planning and $6 million of fund-raising, the couple was breaking ground for the Oaks at Rio Bend, a residential campus for foster kids and their families. The DeLays had come up with the idea. The DeLay Foundation, their nonprofit arm, had raised most of the seed money, and the George Foundation had donated a 30-acre site in Richmond.

Since then, the property has officially been "under construction," as the Sugar Land congressman himself boasted in an editorial in the Houston Chronicle on April 21.

Press releases promise an idyllic foster-care 
Daniel Kramer
Press releases promise an idyllic foster-care campus…
…but the site today doesn't quite match up.
Courtesy of the Oaks at Rio Bend
…but the site today doesn't quite match up.

And so it's jarring to drive out to see the place, eight months after the ground was ceremonially broken and construction supposedly started. You know you've arrived only because of the big sign facing Pultar Road: It announces the future home of the Oaks at Rio Bend, then offers a rendering of the Promised Land. Little villas with dormer windows sit under a vivid blue sky; people walk into a chapel; flowers bloom.

Beyond the sign is nothing.

Not a villa, not a chapel, not a sewer pipe. Not even a clearing.

The weedy grasses have grown waist-high. The barbed wire that lines the property is rusty and mashed down in places. Someone has fired six BB-sized holes into the back of the sign; an empty Busch tall boy patrols the perimeter.

The first bulldozer -- a pint-sized rental -- has just arrived. By the time DeLay published his op-ed, it had cleared a muddy path that stopped abruptly after 12 feet. The rest of the site remained untouched.

Margaret Gow, the project's administrative director, started her job April 19. She now predicts that construction won't be complete until January 2005. "As typical with construction, we're running behind," she says. Lutheran Social Services of the South will manage the facility when work is complete. Its president, Sam Sipes, says that campus residents should be all moved in by spring 2005. He blames the delay on "drainage" issues.

But that practical explanation pales next to the symbolism of the fallow field. Things have gotten complicated for Tom DeLay in the last seven months, things that go far beyond construction schedules or drainage.

Long praised for his philanthropic pursuits, DeLay suddenly has been hit by an avalanche of opposition. Critics have charged that the House majority leader has used his nonprofit work for political gain. His newest charity, they argue, is no more than a clever attempt to avoid campaign finance reform.

When the DeLays hoisted their shovels of dirt last September, charity work must have seemed like a way to burnish their image, a chance to give back and earn positive publicity at the same time. That's how it had always worked.

Lately, it hasn't been so easy.

Whether positive or negative, newspaper profiles of DeLay almost always offer two facts about his charitable efforts: The congressman and his wife have been committed to foster-care causes for nearly 20 years, and they've taken in foster daughters of their own.

DeLay's foster kids may have been the beneficiaries of a certain absence of warmth toward his own family. As The Washington Post has reported, DeLay's late father was an alcoholic, and the congressman has long been estranged from his two brothers, sister and mother.

One brother, an ex-convict, could not be reached for comment. Another, a Houston-based lobbyist, wouldn't return phone messages. As for 80-year-old Maxine DeLay, she lives in Richmond, not far from her famous son. But she told the Post the closest contact she has with him is by watching C-SPAN. (Sweet-voiced, with a fluff of white hair, Maxine DeLay answered her door to a reporter only to decline comment politely, saying she does not give interviews.)

It is a testament to the animosity DeLay generates in some quarters that even his foster children have been the source of nasty gossip: Democrats in Fort Bend County still hiss that one foster daughter was actually the congressman's own bastard progeny, a product of DeLay's fabled "Hot Tub Tom" days in the Texas legislature.

The rumor seems like political mud no one would take seriously, even the people slinging it. Still, it's been so persistent that DeLay felt compelled to deny it publicly. In an official statement five years ago, he called the rumor "despicable," adding, "…I am the proud foster parent of two children, and I will continue to be, regardless of how my enemies try to exploit my foster children for political gain."

Despite the rumors, however, DeLay has gained ample recognition for his nonprofit work. Among the many honors he has received is the 2000 Humanitarian Award from the Orphan Foundation of America. Fort Bend Child Advocates named DeLay and his wife "Child Advocates of the Year" in 2002.

Then there's the DeLay Foundation for Kids, the organization that Tom and Christine DeLay established in 1988. The foundation's purpose is to raise money for "at risk" children; despite some years of complete dormancy, it's also been a valuable softening agent for DeLay's "Hammer"-tough image.

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