By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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DeLay thought those arguments were bunk. As he explained in a speech to the Cato Institute in July 2000, "The innocuously named 'campaign finance reform movement' is perhaps the most worrisome and disingenuous special interest of them all."
Enough of DeLay's fellow Republicans disagreed that Congress approved a series of reforms in July 2002. The law changed: Political parties could no longer accept unlimited funds from corporations. Even worse for DeLay, leadership committees -- like his wildly successful Americans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee -- were also barred from accepting those funds.
In the two years before the new rules went into effect, DeLay's committee had raised $2.3 million from corporate coffers, about 40 percent of its total, according to records. Among the expenses the money helped to cover was his wife's salary: Christine DeLay earned almost $4,000 a month in 2002 as a fund-raiser for the committee.
Then came the new laws. "The reforms were really a sea change in financing laws," says Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen in Washington, D.C. "A whole lot of these political action committees just closed up shop."
Worst of all: Congresspeople could no longer party like rock stars on the corporate dime. At the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, DeLay used the corporate cash to wine and dine his colleagues. Union Pacific donated fancy rail cars, and DeLay made them Party Central, with drinks and meals for GOP lawmakers willing to put in some face time with lobbyists.
The Dallas Morning News quoted an unnamed lobbyist explaining, "Tom DeLay has a whole package you can buy starting at $15,000 or $25,000 and going up to $75,000 or $100,000 If you bought into one of those big-time packages, you're going to be invited to the train. There's a lot of members there and very few lobbyists. It's very exclusive."
Campaign finance reform would make all of that illegal.
But DeLay had a backup plan. In September, right around the time he was "breaking ground" for the Oaks at Rio Bend, he announced he was starting a new charity called Celebrations for Children.
The charity would employ some of the same people who'd made DeLay's political machine such a success: Republican fund-raiser Rob Jennings, longtime DeLay adviser Craig Richardson and DeLay's daughter Dani DeLay Ferro.
And, like DeLay's political committee had once done in 2000, the charity planned to host a series of events at the Republican National Convention for big-time donors: a golf tournament, Broadway shows, a reception during President George W. Bush's acceptance speech, a late-night party with a "big name national act" -- and plenty of access to DeLay.
As the plans were unveiled, spokesman Grella explained, "Here's a guy who has a history of raising money for abused and neglected children, and now he's going to do it at the convention. That's how you raise money for charity."
But if its brochure was any indication, Celebrations for Children put a much bigger premium on luxury than on helping kids. A donor contributing in the "Upper East Side" category of $500,000, for example, could get a private dinner before the convention, another dinner after the convention and a private yacht cruise, all with the majority leader. The events were described with Trump-like excess: The party "promises to once again be the hottest ticket at the GOP Convention." The reception for donors to mingle during the president's speech was in a "luxury suite." Even the Broadway tickets were to be "premier."
After all that, the children seem like an afterthought. "Net proceeds," the brochure noted, "will be disbursed to charities dedicated to abused and neglected children." There was no mention of which charities, which kids or what good it would do.
The brochure drew fire almost immediately. Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, publicly urged the IRS to reject Celebrations for Children's application for nonprofit status: "In an attempt to evade the soft money restrictions applicable to him under the new law, Representative DeLay has created Celebrations for Children and is misusing it as a vehicle for private political benefits."
Rick Cohen, director of the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, trashes the concept. "I'll accept the idea that Tom DeLay and his wife really do care about kids," Cohen says. "But this particular use of charity, where people use it as a mechanism to give money to lawmakers and not have to report those gifts, and to use them as a mechanism to get face time, we think that's a real concern -- and a misuse of philanthropy."
Critics charged that the group would allow lobbyists to pay for House members to hit the links and party down -- with no one being any wiser.
"There are better opportunities to raise money and put it in children's programs," Cohen says. "Even if you're saying, 'This goes to the kids,' there are questions of accountability here that people need to be concerned with."
DeLay's previous maneuverings to help his charity drew little attention outside Washington, but that has not been true of Celebrations for Children. Never a media favorite, DeLay couldn't have been surprised by negative reactions from The New York Timesand The Washington Post (which called the plan "a particularly repulsive" loophole to campaign finance laws). Still, he couldn't have expected a similar tarring from the Wichita Eagle and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. ("Leave it to creative politicians to invent new ways to sully the world around them," the Post-Gazetteopined.)