DeLay's Dirty Donor

Reports yesterday confirmed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) "took a $100,000 check from a private prison company" – the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – at a fund-raiser in August for his children's charity, the DeLay Foundation for Kids. CCA, whose 20-year history has been "fraught with malfeasance, mismanagement, and abuse," said it expected "no favors in return" for the contribution, but remains part of an ongoing lobby for a bill that would privatize up to half of Texas's jails. DeLay is known for wielding influence – especially during his push for redistricting – on the Republican-led legislature that will decide on the matter. The transaction demonstrates what's at stake in DeLay's shady behind-closed-doors fundraising, which blurs the line between political and charitable giving and shields powerful interest groups from public scrutiny.

DELAY'S TEXAS DEALINGS: DeLay's fundraising methods came under scrutiny late last year, when CBS reported the House Majority Leader was using a children's charity as cover for collecting soft money from anonymous interest groups, some of which would be used for "dinners, a golf tournament, a rock concert, Broadway tickets and other fundraising events" DeLay planned to host at the Republican convention in New York. Because the money was supposedly for charity, companies wishing to curry favor with DeLay were able to do so without revealing themselves as campaign donors.

DELAY'S REPEATED REBUKES FROM ETHICS COMMITTEE: In one of its three rebukes for DeLay's fundraising practices, the bipartisan House Ethics Committee cited the belief on the part of executives at an energy company, Westar Energy Inc., that a $56,500 contribution to a political action committee associated with DeLay would get them a "seat at the table" where key legislation was being drafted. DeLay's fundraising practices are now the subject of a Texas Grand Jury investigation. In order to protect DeLay, House Republicans repealed a party rule requiring a "member of their leadership to step aside temporarily if indicted."

CCA AND TEXAS, FAMILIAR BEDFELLOWS: CCA certainly has a "seat at the table" where legislation to privatize prisons in Texas is concerned. In November 2003, Texas awarded the company a lucrative contract for the management of more than 8,300 beds in seven state prisons. Texas currently has the largest number of privately managed inmates in the country and CCA is the state's largest private provider. The company's ongoing lobby to repeal laws limiting the share of state prison beds that can be privatized was thwarted last year only because of aggressive last-minute opposition from Texas's prison guards, who stood to absorb pay cuts of up to 40 percent.

THE CASE FOR CLEAN GOVERNMENT: Campaign finance reform groups have called on DeLay to disclose the name of his donors, but so far the Congressman has refused. The CCA case argues for a more transparent system. "If politicians insist on operating charities, then, as public figures, they should open all financial records to public inspection," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group, Democracy 21. So far, the list that has trickled out has included "lobbyists and corporations with a direct interest in legislation and government contracts." A philanthropy expert, Rick Cohen, added that corrupt politician-linked charities can "tarnish the credibility of other charities and hamper their fund-raising efforts."


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