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08.16.10

Tom DeLay Ducks Justice

The former House Majority Leader is gloating over the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute him in the Abramoff scandal. Peter Stone on the government's failure and whether DeLay could still go to jail.

Given the glacial and sometimes confusing path of the federal probe into the Abramoff scandal since its peak of activity in late 2006 and 2007 and much of Congress’ heavy dependence on K Street’s fundraising machine, it was not all that surprising that the Department of Justice told Tom DeLay’s attorneys that no charges would be filed. But it was a disappointing denouement for the public corruption probe into the biggest player in Congress with links to the vast influence-peddling operation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

To be sure, the department has chalked up 20 convictions of former Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists, ex-Bush administration officials, and one member of Congress in its far-flung probe of Abramoff’s operation. But the failure to bring charges against the former House Majority Leader, who had deep and multiple ties to Abramoff that benefitted both men, underscores not only how difficult public corruption cases are to prove, but weaknesses in the Public Integrity Section at the Justice Department, which has overseen the probe in tandem with the Fraud section.

DeLay even boasted that “the case was so weak that I was never interviewed by the investigators.”

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The decision not to prosecute DeLay after almost six years has dismayed analysts and watchdog groups that track Congress, the Justice Department, and the Abramoff scandal. In a written statement, David Donnelly, campaign manager of the Campaign for Fair Elections, called the decision “further evidence that the scandal is not what is illegal, but rather what is legally permitted each and every day in Washington, D.C.”

Two of DeLay’s top aides, ex-press spokesman Michael Scanlon and ex-deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy, had pleaded guilty in 2005 and 2006, respectively, to criminal charges. (Both are still awaiting sentencing.) And a third top aide, Ed Buckham, who was DeLay’s former chief of staff and who was implicated in Rudy’s plea, was long expected to be charged as well, though he has not been.

From the start of the scandal, when Abramoff’s influence-peddling network was exposed in numerous stories in the national press, DeLay’s role, and especially that of his key aides, in facilitating Abramoff’s rise to power was crucial.

DeLay’s office often let Abramoff’s clients and would-be clients, Indian-owned casinos and the impoverished Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, know that if they wanted access to the Texas Republican they needed to go through Abramoff, which meant one thing: Hire him for his big fees.

While he served in Congress, DeLay took three lavish junkets paid for by Abramoff’s clients to Scotland, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Russia. These trips helped Abramoff cement his image and business: DeLay famously returned to Washington in early 1998 from the Marianas, where he golfed with Abramoff, and spearheaded successful efforts to block efforts to extend the U.S. minimum wage laws to the island’s poorly paid immigrant garment workers. And DeLay extolled the Marianas’ lack of regulation as a “perfect petri dish of capitalism.”

Abramoff cultivated his ties with DeLay not only through these trips, but also through his stellar fundraising for the Texan’s campaigns, political action committee, and favorite charities. The close links between Abramoff, aka “Casino Jack,” and DeLay, aka “the Hammer," seemed symbiotic ones to some former GOP leadership aides who knew both men well. “Jack raised money for the pet projects of DeLay and took care of his top staff,” one ex-Capitol Hill aide told me a few years ago. “In turn they granted him tremendous access and allowed Abramoff to freely trade on DeLay’s name.”

Little wonder that DeLay was in a gloating mood on Monday when he held a phone-in press conference with reporters and declared he was “exonerated.” DeLay, who publicly announced he was going to resign from Congress not long after Rudy pleaded guilty, criticized the federal investigation as an example of the “criminalization of politics and the politics of personal destruction…”

It was the old Tom DeLay in full attack and spin mode, showing off the conservative political footwork he famously parlayed into a short-lived performance on Dancing With the Stars.

He even boasted that “the case was so weak that I was never interviewed by the investigators.”

Some lawyers familiar with the Abramoff scandal told me they think the Justice Department’s failure at least to interview DeLay, after all the time and energy it put into the probe, seems a bit odd. Even DeLay’s lead attorney, Richard Cullen, who publicly stressed how much information DeLay gave the department, told me that “we most likely would have granted the request” if DeLay had been asked for an interview.

Even if the probe into DeLay was reaching a dead end, some white-collar attorneys point out, the Justice Department should have interviewed him. “You don’t know what someone’s going to say until you talk to them,” one attorney said. “It’s a difficult decision to understand.”

More broadly, some Justice Department veterans who worked on the Abramoff case in its early stages, before the lobbyist pleaded guilty in early 2006 to defrauding four casino-rich Indian tribes out of almost $25 million, corrupting public officials, and tax evasion, fault the department for not assembling the kind of resources it did in the Enron case. “Unlike Enron, a team of experienced and seasoned prosecutors was not assembled from around the country with major courtroom experience,” said Josh Hochberg, who ran the fraud section for several years during the Bush administration.

Despite the dreary end of the DeLay probe, the Texan still has some big legal headaches ahead in Texas, where he has been indicted on charges of money laundering and conspiracy, allegations that are related to state legislative elections in 2002. DeLay and two political operatives were indicted in 2005 for allegedly laundering $190,000 in corporate money, which is strongly curbed under Texas law, to help GOP legislators get elected. That case is slated to go to trial, likely this year.

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Peter H. Stone leads the money and politics team at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative journalism group in Washington. Stone is the author of the recently released paperback Casino Jack and the United States of Money.