Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

WED 4-5-6 EDITORIAL >> Can you say, ‘Teapot Dome’?

Rep. Tom DeLay’s announcement yesterday that he would quit his re-election campaign, resign his seat and move his voting residence from Sugar Land, Texas, to the Virginia suburbs of the national capital surprised no one. Washington had awaited it since last week, when his former deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to corruption charges and agreed to cooperate with federal investigators.

That brings the investigation of bribery and influence-peddling directly into DeLay’s office, where it has been headed since a spurned lover from DeLay’s office staff began to rat on her big-spending lobbyist boyfriend, another former DeLay aide, in this thoroughly American scandal.

When investigators close in, you resign whatever position or job you have. The indictment of a former something gets smaller headlines than the indictment of the real thing.

When David Safavian, a budget aide to President Bush, was indicted in the early stages of the investigation for lying and obstructing the inquiry, it earned small attention in the press because he had resigned from Bush’s staff quietly a few days earlier to spend more time with his family.

It was the same last month when the president’s “former” (by a few days) chief domestic adviser was arrested for running a bait-and-switch shoplifting scam against Washington-area retailers. It received scant coverage.
The dominos have been falling, one after another, for a year until now it is DeLay’s turn.

But while the former Republican majority leader’s ex-status will enable him to legally convert his mammoth campaign chest into a legal defense fund, it will not soften the publicity.

Tom DeLay, the former pest exterminator, was for a few years the most powerful and ruthless congressional leader of modern times.

He was forced to give up his leadership post last year when a Texas prosecutor charged him with laundering corporate money illegally into Texas political campaigns.

DeLay is the second Republican congressional leader to resign in the scandal. Rep. Duke Cunningham of California, a DeLay ally, quit his post in the winter and went to prison for bribery.

There will be more. Jack Abramoff, the DeLay pal who was the kingpin of the influence-peddling operation, is known to be talking to prosecutors in hopes of a lighter sentence. The Capitol Hill Republican aides who were functionaries in DeLay’s corrupt “K Street Project” are talking and it seems unstoppable.

All that the DeLay corruption needs to take its place in the pantheon of American scandals is a catchier name. The “K Street Project” is not “Teapot Dome” or “Watergate.”

In substantive terms, the DeLay scandals are worse than Watergate, which involved the abuse of power, and parallel the Warren Harding scandals that are known historically under the rubric “Teapot Dome.”

Teapot Dome and K Street involve the abuse of power all right, but they also involve venality on a biblical scale.
The K Street Project was DeLay’s well-designed plan to convert all the corporate lobbying enterprises in the District of Columbia into Republican money spigots by infiltrating them with wives, girlfriends and operatives from Republican congressional offices. Government goods and services became part of the tradeoff, which is where the bribery came in. The money got to be truly mammoth.

Abramoff and a former DeLay press secretary, Michael Scanlon, sucked $80 million from Indian tribes alone to help the tribes get favorable treatment for their casinos in Congress and from the Bush administration. The tribes had once tended to favor Democrats. Abramoff would siphon the tribe money to Scanlon, the former DeLay aide, who would kick half of it back to Abramoff.

It will be a long time before Americans can take the measure of the sweeping corruption that DeLay and his men set in motion and that has now engulfed them. The little ethics measures adopted by Congress mean little. They are mere distractions. When it is all done and all the miscreants are in prison or banished from the public councils we may contemplate if there is anything that might prevent its recurrence.

Something tells us that in the end there can be no certain protection in law, that when one party or one group controls all the levers of power, including private sources of money, venal men will find a way to misuse it and to subvert the public interest. What is shocking and dismaying in the DeLay scandals, as in Teapot Dome, is that the impulse to deceive, steal and corrupt could overtake so many.