Sweet Charity

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

DeLay's congressional Web site proudly cites the foundation's accomplishments. (The foundation itself has a Web site, but it features only a logo and a suggestion to "check back soon.") It started hosting charity golf tournaments in 1994; in 1998, Child Advocates of Fort Bend County opened the Tom and Christine DeLay Children's Advocacy Center. Susie Moseley, executive director of Child Advocates, says the foundation's gifts to the center total about $1.5 million.

The foundation's tax returns indicate that those gifts were its only major contributions for some time. In fact, they suggest the foundation went dormant in the mid-'90s: From 1996 to 1999, it raised just $1,995.

Then, in 2000, the DeLay Foundation hired two East Coast fund-raisers. Washington Strategies is run by DeLay's former deputy chief of staff. The other, WMR Consulting, has done significant work for both of DeLay's political action committees.

The perfect photo op? The DeLays (center) show how 
it's done.
John Anderson
The perfect photo op? The DeLays (center) show how it's done.
Politicians set up charities to make themselves look 
good, Fred Lewis says.
Charles Steck
Politicians set up charities to make themselves look good, Fred Lewis says.

The political strategists proved adept at raising charitable money. In the 2000 fiscal year, the foundation reported $972,663 in grants, most in large sums. One contribution alone was a staggering $250,000.

In 2001, the DeLay Foundation hosted three events, netting $1.3 million. Its fund-raisers took about 10 percent off the top.

Not everyone praises the foundation's efforts. Fred Lewis, executive director of the Austin-based Campaigns for People, wonders just who the fund-raisers were soliciting. After all, they were used to dealing with political donors, not charitable ones.

Charities, unlike political campaigns, are not required to disclose contributors publicly. The idea is to spare donors from negative repercussions for their gifts. But, as Lewis notes, "The only reason you'd get negative publicity for being associated with something like this is because you're trying to curry favor." Giving to the foundation, he believes, could easily be a way for corporations to get access to DeLay, and thereby win support for their agendas in Washington, without disclosing their interests publicly.

"I'm a big believer in nonprofit social service, but I don't think that's why these entities are created," Lewis says. "People give to foundations to get access. And politicians set up foundations so they can look good."

In 1995, when Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House, the House Ethics Committee backed reforms designed to lessen the power of lobbyists. One of the new rules barred House members from accepting free trips from lobbyists, even if those trips ultimately benefited a charity.

Last January, DeLay suddenly pushed through a reversal of that same rule. As his spokesman later admitted to Roll Call, it was partly to help the DeLay Foundation, which was throwing a golf outing in the Florida Keys. DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy explained that the congressman wanted to "get members to come to the DeLay Foundation event so that we could have additional leverage to raise money for abused, needy kids."

The foundation's latest tax returns indicate the event raised $753,000.

DeLay's self-serving rule reversal didn't go unnoticed. Congressman Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who chairs the House Ethics Committee, told newspapers he objected to the change but was overruled by party leadership.

When it comes to questions about ethics, DeLay knows it's hard to criticize anything that helps kids. Notes spokesman Jonathan Grella with a sigh, "So many of his critics haven't even deigned to lift a finger on behalf of children."

The foundation gave away just $7,000 to charities from 1996 to 2001, according to its tax returns. But it soon found a worthy recipient for its increased revenues. In 2001, the IRS granted nonprofit status to a second DeLay charity: the Oaks at Rio Bend.

The Oaks was established to provide homes for families with foster kids. In the first phase, valued at $10 million, eight families will take up residence in a new community in a rural section of Richmond. Each family can bring three children of their own; as part of the program, each will also take in three foster kids.

Sipes, president of Lutheran Social Services of the South, explains that instead of paying for their shelter, the families' rent monies will subsidize a fleet of supportive programs. The project is planned to include a chapel and multiservice center; foster parents can get the resources they need, while foster kids will get a community beyond their own families' walls.

"We're going to create a community here that will be very supportive," he says. "Your neighbors will know what kind of issues you're dealing with, and we'll have our staff there on site, to be available to talk. And it's creating a permanent home for the kids -- even when they leave, the bed won't be filled by someone else."

Sipes credits Tom and Christine DeLay with the idea. He says there is no model for it; to his knowledge, a campus for nuclear families and their foster kids has never been undertaken anywhere in the country.

It isn't cheap. The first-phase costs are more than $1 million for each of the initial eight families.

Tom DeLay's third charity apparently started because of campaign finance reform.

Reform was designed to weaken the influence of special interests. Without having to sell their souls for campaign contributions, the logic went, legislators could keep their constituents' best interests at heart -- not those of the corporations that tried to get in the way.

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