Sweet Charity

Press releases promise an idyllic foster-care campus
Daniel Kramer

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.

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.

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 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.

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 Times and 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-Gazette opined.)

"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."

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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