Sweet Charity

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

"I cannot overstate the amount of fire and vitriol and hatred we've received from Democrats and the media," Grella says.

The critics refused to pull back their guns. Common Cause and the National Center for Responsible Philanthropy repeatedly asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate. "We acknowledge and respect Congressman DeLay's commitment to disadvantaged children, but this has nothing to do with that," says Mary Boyle, the press secretary for Common Cause. "He's using the guise of a charity to host a political fund-raiser. It's clearly an end run around campaign finance reform.

"I think America is getting tired of this."

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.

Gary Lewi is a public relations gun-for-hire with spin to spare. Television personality Kathie Lee Gifford reportedly turned to him to handle her sweatshop scandal. The Catholic Diocese of Rockville Center hired him during the height of the priestly pedophilia charges that rocked the church two years ago. When the Long Island Press compiled its list of the "50 Most Powerful Long Islanders," it put Lewi at 14 -- two places ahead of Bill O'Reilly.

So it was perhaps a sign that Tom DeLay's critics were making headway when Lewi popped up in a new role: spokesman for Celebrations for Children.

It hasn't been an easy eight months for DeLay. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has been investigating allegations of campaign financing violations against the DeLay-backed Texans for a Republican Majority.

At the same time, the congressman has been hammered over the Celebrations for Children plan. And though the group applied for tax-exempt status months ago, it has yet to hear from the IRS, Lewi says -- not great news for a charity created specifically to host events this August.

In April, Lewi insisted the plans were still good to go. There was nothing to worry about, he promised the Houston Press. Upscale donors could see the partisan attacks for what they were, he suggested, with the smoothness that once rehabilitated Kathie Lee.

"There's a recognition on the part of these potential donors that this criticism is coming from partisan critics. It has nothing to do with this charity, and everything to do with political posturing."

One month later, the group abruptly pulled its plans. The reason, according to Lewi: New York City at the time of the convention was just "too expensive."

While the battle over Celebrations for Children raged toward an abrupt halt in Washington, the Oaks at Rio Bend geared up in Richmond to start construction -- finally.

Gow, the administrative director, won't say how close the organization is to the $10 million it needs for its first phase. The group reportedly had $6 million at groundbreaking, but there's been no detailed progress report since. Gow says only that fund-raising is coming along nicely, though there's still more work to be done.

In that vein, she adds, the campus is selling sponsorships. For $550,000, you can put your name on one of the eight homes for foster kids. A street named for you costs just $200,000; the picnic area is a bargain at $35,000.

The Fort Bend Junior Service League already has signed up for one of the eight houses, Gow says. Corporations, civic groups and individuals now have their chance to step up to the plate.

In a way, that should mollify some of DeLay's critics. They'd argued that it wasn't right for donors to give to the congressman's group without disclosure. But when it comes to revealing those givers' largesse, a street sign should do nicely.

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