Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Hot Tub Tom


Times have been good at the National Center for Public Policy Research since Republicans captured the House in 1994: Annual contributions have quadrupled to more than $6 million, and the wife-husband team that runs the conservative nonprofit foundation is paid combined salaries of $275,000, according to recent tax filings. After investing millions of dollars in direct mail, the Center boasts a donor base of near 75,000.

"The National Center is THE CENTER for conservative communications," says an endorsement from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on the organization's Web site.

Yet for all this success, the Center and Mr. DeLay are on the defensive these days, accused of sacrificing their conservative message for the fast money and favors of Washington. Each came of age in the Ronald Reagan-dominated years of the early 1980s. Both are haunted by a very different Republican from California: lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a former director and fund-raiser for the Center and political ally of Mr. DeLay.

Mr. Abramoff was Mr. DeLay's travel companion on trips in 1997 and 2000 to Russia and London, both paid for by the Center. The Center, the congressman and lobbyist had a shared interest in the trips. The Center, which sponsored the travel, got to promote its agenda with a powerful Republican lawmaker. Mr. Abramoff got to travel with the congressman in a manner that wouldn't be permitted if his lobbying clients -- rather than the Center -- were paying directly. And Mr. DeLay and his wife traveled in luxury not possible on traditional taxpayer-financed congressional delegations.

For example, House records show that for the London trip, Mr. DeLay's office filed reports listing $70,259 in transportation, hotel and meal bills paid by the Center -- $28,100 for Mr. DeLay and his wife and $42,159 for his chief of staff and her husband, as well as a second aide who was on at least part of the trip.

The Center says it paid the bills for the London trip from general donations, while the Russia trip was covered from an estimated $165,000 payment from an international law firm seeking to promote exchanges with Russian businessmen. Lobbying records filed with Congress and the timing of donations to the Center indicate Mr. Abramoff may have used the nonprofit group to cloak payments from his clients to pay for Mr. DeLay's trips, thus circumventing the House ban on lobbyist-financed travel.