House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has been called one of the most powerful and controversial leaders Congress has ever seen. Over the years, many believe DeLay has become the nexus of corporate money and politics in Washington. Today, one of his political action committees, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), is at the center of a criminal investigation. What will this investigation reveal about the man they call “The Hammer” of the House of Representatives?
What are the powers of a president in times of war? This week, Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to release the government memo that contends that a wartime president is not bound by existing laws prohibiting torture and wouldn’t comment on any advice he might have given the President regarding the memo. Some argue that the memorandum laid the ground work for the abuses that surfaced in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. NOW talks with representatives from two legal groups that have filed lawsuits against two US corporations contracted in Iraq, claiming these contractors, in the name of corporate profits, conspired to humiliate, torture and abuse persons detained by U.S. authorities in Iraq.
There’s a movement afoot among the press in Washington to push for less secrecy in government. Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press, discusses a plan he unveiled last month for a “media advocacy center” to lobby for open government. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.
It has been the kind of week only Washington can produce. One day fierce partisanship, the next a solemn show of unanimity for a departed president.
Today political Washington declared a truce, and said farewell to Ronald Reagan. But no truce lasts long in that polarized city, and you can bet this one will be over by Monday. Ronald Reagan would have understood. One of the most ideological of politicians ever to dominate that town, he welcomed a good fight.
BILL MOYERS: And a fight there was this week, with huge stakes for America’s role in the world and for President George W. Bush’s legacy.
It began on Monday, when the WALL STREET JOURNAL broke what could be the smoking gun in the Abu Ghraib story. The JOURNAL’s Jess Bravin told of a secret draft memo written last year — by the administration’s own lawyers…advising President Bush that he is not bound to follow American laws and international codes that prohibit torture. In effect, the memorandum-justifies torture — empowers the president to order torture — and redefines torture to make inflicting pain and psychological suffering legal.
We have some new information tonight on that secret memo and others. But first, let’s look at what happened when Attorney General John Ashcroft was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about them.
The attorney general was grilled for three hours. He kept saying President Bush does not condone torture and hasn’t issued any orders that would violate international treaties against torture. But Ashcroft kept saying no when senators demanded the official Justice Department memorandum be made public.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): I asked you for the specific memo that’s now reported in the press 10 days ago and received no response. I could read it in the press, but I have not received a response from you.
Did your department issue a memorandum that would suggest that torture is allowed under certain circumstances as the press has reported? And that’s a simple enough question. It could take a yes-or-no answer.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I’m not going to comment on the memos and advice that I give to executive departments of government.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): Has there been any order directed from the president with respect to interrogation of detainees, prisoners or combatants, yes or no?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I’m not in a position to answer that question.
BILL MOYERS: Members of the committee wanted to know if the memos — and the administration’s apparent search for a way to justify torture — had contributed to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. But with only partial disclosures leaked to the press, their inquiry won’t get very far. That’s why the members of the committee wanted to see all the documents.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): But under which standard are you denying this committee the memos, either executive privilege or a specific statutory authority created by Congress exempting your constitutional responsibility to disclose? Under which are you refusing to disclose these memos?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I am refusing to disclose these memos because I believe it is essential to the operation of the executive branch that the president have the opportunity to get information from his attorney general that is confidential and that the responsibility to do that is a function of the executive branch and a necessity that is protected by the doctrine of the separation of powers in the Constitution.
And for that reason — and that is the reason for which I have not delivered to the Congress or the members of the Senate these memos, any memos.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): Sir, Attorney General, with all due respect, your personal belief is not a law, and you are not citing a law and you are not claiming executive privilege. And, frankly, that is what contempt of Congress is all about. I think this committee has a responsibility to move forward on this.
BILL MOYERS: The Committee Chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch, asked what seemed like a straightforward question.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT): Are these memos classified?
BILL MOYERS: But the attorney general didn’t have a straightforward answer.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): Is this a sidebar conference on something the attorney general has so authoritatively stated his position on?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I’ll tell you: This is me getting advice which will remain confidential.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): Well, I know. But the attorney general has been speaking about these memos so authoritatively that you ought to be able to at least say whether they are classified or not.
JOHN ASHCROFT: I have answered your questions. The committee has not made a decision to ask for these memos.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): No, but the chairman asked you a specific question. Are there memos classified?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Some of these memos may be classified in some ways for some purposes. I don’t know. I don’t…
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): Mr. Attorney General, with all due respect, that is a complete evasion. What you have done is refuse to cite a statutory basis for disclosing these memos, refused to claim executive privilege, and now suggest that some parts of these may be classified.
Mr. Chairman, I hope we take this up very seriously because I think it gets to the heart of our relationship. The attorney general is an occasional guest here, and we’re glad to have him. But I think to come here and basically tell us that we cannot see documents from your department on the basis of which you’ve said this morning is not fair and not consistent with our Constitution.
BILL MOYERS: While the debate over the access to the memos seemed to go nowhere, Senator Joseph Biden turned to the larger issue behind the memos — was the administration considering torture as a viable option?
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): A question to you; not memorandum, just you, John Ashcroft, Attorney General of the United States, highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the United States of America, and lawyer. Do you believe in this time of war, torture might be justified and be viewed as constitutional?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, this administration has not ordered or approved…
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): I’m not asking that, John. Excuse me, all due respect…
JOHN ASHCROFT: I am not going to issue…
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): I just want to know your opinion.
JOHN ASHCROFT: … or otherwise discuss hypotheticals. I’ll leave that to the academics. Just ask them the subject.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Do you think this is justified? It’s not hypothetical.
JOHN ASHCROFT: That’s not a hypothetical. That’s a circumstance. And that’s the kind of circumstance that when it is referred to the Justice Department, we investigate. And if there is a basis for prosecution, we would prosecute. And we have…
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): John, you sound like you’re in the State Department. Remember the old days when you were here looking for answers, remember on this side?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I have a recollection of that.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Well, my time’s up, I can see.
JOHN ASHCROFT: You know, I condemn torture. I think it…
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): So it’s not justified, then?
JOHN ASHCROFT: I don’t think it’s productive, let alone justified.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Well, I don’t either. And by the way, there’s a reason — I’ll conclude by saying — there’s a reason why we sign these treaties: to protect my son in the military. That’s why we have these treaties. So when Americans are captured, they are not tortured. That’s the reason, in case anybody forgets it.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Attorney General Ashcroft is holding fast to that memo. But the draft version already leaked to the press details some of the way the administration could argue that torture is okay. The Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights group based in New York has been pushing for the Bush administration to play by the long established rules for prisoners held in the war on terror. This week the Center took action, filing a class action suit against two private contractors; the Titan Corporation and CACI International, accusing them of conspiring with US officials to humiliate, abuse and torture prisoners in Iraq.
The suit also named three employees of those firms. Here to talk to us about that and about torture and about presidential powers is Ron Daniels, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ron, welcome to NOW.
RON DANIELS: It’s good to be with you.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Let’s talk about this draft memo. As we heard the attorney general says this is advice, but we didn’t adopt it’s recommendations. So, does this draft memo really matter?
RON DANIELS: I think it matters a great deal because the question is why are you seeking advice about that which is unconstitutional in terms of US law as well as the violation of international law. I mean, essentially they were talking about how to torture people. And of course torture is banned internationally, it’s banned by the US law.
And clearly what they were attempting to do in the name of fighting the war against terrorism was to find ways and means of circumventing the law. And we now see what the consequences of that is because whether or not they actually adopted it or not this was their mindset. And of course — that mindset led to widespread abuses not only in Guantanamo but in Iraq and — we suspect other places around the world.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Reading through the memo there seems to be an attempt to carefully– I guess that’s the word– carefully define what is torture. And they come up with a fairly narrow definition, wouldn’t you say?
RON DANIELS: The point is they — the definition doesn’t matter to them. That’s what they’re basically saying is that they were trying to take the level of presidential power to quote “the apex” so that what you really needed was simply a question of necessity, that you have to do this out of necessity. They were finding means to do torture.
Or they were saying it’s a matter of self defense, that in the name of self defense none of what the Geneva Conventions talked about nor the torture conventions applied. We are going to get the information we need from these prisoners by any means necessary.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: What about this self defense argument in that memo? It’s long established from English law, English common law, and our own traditions that if you’re under attack and to save yourself and if there is no alternative you have the right to, for instance, kill somebody. I mean, it’s a very — it’s the argument in this case is if we’re under attack the President may have extraordinary powers.
RON DANIELS: Well, they’re extrapolating that particular position from criminal law. But what the international convention against torture says clearly, very clearly, under no circumstances — either war, the threat of war, which is important because it sort of preempts the doctrine of preemptive strike or a state of national emergency under no circumstances can torture be used.
And clearly they were aware of this and they were trying to find ways and means of getting around it. And in fact when you read the memo they were trying to find ways to justify not only torture but under certain circumstances homicide. I mean, this is– I mean, the word homicide was exactly mentioned in the memo. So, clearly this is way beyond the pale in terms of what we as Americans ought to be thinking about in terms of the prosecution of our foreign policies, our war against terrorism.
And this is why I think the Senate of the United States both, on both sides, you have people not only Biden being concerned about it– but Senator Larry Craig from Idaho being very concerned about it. He’s a Republican. Because this goes at the very heart and soul of what this nation is supposed to be about.
And if we can have the President of the United States feeling that he and this nation can be above the rule of law then the question is what are we fighting for in the world. I mean, how do we talk about prosecuting and fighting for democracy and holding ourselves up as a beacon of human rights when we in fact are violating the very tenets of our own law and our precepts as a nation.
And one of the concerns I think many of us have is the executive branch aggregating unto itself, you know, extraordinary power such that no one can question what the executive brand does. And in fact as the Center for Constitutional Rights went before the Supreme Court to argue the Rasul Case in terms of Guantanamo that’s what Ted Olson basically said. “Courts, this is– ”
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Ted Olson is the Solicitor General —
RON DANIELS: The Solicitor General —
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Essentially the administration’s lawyer.
RON DANIELS: It’s lawyer. And basically what he said was in a time of war you don’t have a right, Supreme Court, you know, to review these matters. And of course the Supreme Court said, “Yes, we do have the right– to review these matters.” Thank God, because this is what I think many of us are really, really concerned about is that, you know, we’re looking at a situation where more and more power is being aggregated to the executive– a lot of this stuff is secret. This was a secret memorandum and in fact was not scheduled to be released until 2013. I mean, so these things were going on– the discussions were going on and in fact the abuses were going on and we could have as American citizens have known nothing about that which was going on in our name as American citizens.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But are you surprised by this? I mean, if you look at American history, presidents took on extraordinary powers in war time repeatedly. You take a look at Lincoln– without Congress’ approval, suspending the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War. That’s what happens during times of war.
RON DANIELS: Well, I think one of the arguments we have to make is I’m not sure that’s what should happen. In fact, let me put it another way. It should not happen. We should not be suspending our Constitution. We should not be suspending the Bill of Rights. We should not be undermining our civil liberties. We should not be undermining international law in the name of protecting democracy, propagating democracy and sharing our values with the world.
I mean, this is incongruent. It does not make sense. Now, I think there are people out there who say, “Well, gee, you know, after 9/11 anything and everything goes.” Well, anything and everything does not go for the United States of America.
Then the question is where does it stop, where does it end? And that’s why I think people like William Safire, you know, has raised his voice. That’s why the Cato Institute– these aren’t radical lefties. You know, these are people who are civil libertarians who are saying, “Wait a minute. How far does this go?”
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Now, different legal tact. Your organization, your center, has a lawsuit against some private companies involved in interrogations on behalf of the military overseas. What’s the strategy there?
RON DANIELS: Well the strategy really — based on our observation of many of the photographs– we saw people who were out of uniform, who were clearly civilians. And we discovered that there were civilian contractors that the United States had hired to do intelligence work and in intelligence work and interrogation work.
And as we began to look at this scenario and we began to find people who alleged that they’d been tortured low and behold these companies, or the employees of some of these companies, came into the picture. So our strategy at the first take, is to get out the question of companies who have been hired by the United States ostensibly to do this you know legitimate intelligence and interrogation work — who may in fact have engaged in illegal and unlawful acts. And this is what our clients allege —
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And your clients are what? Iraqis who have been–
RON DANIELS: Well–
DAVID BRANCACCIO: –tortured?
RON DANIELS: –there were Iraqis who– in many instances arrested for no apparent reason, as we would say in this country. It would be a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. No real suspicion, but sort of a dragnet approach. And arrested and then the allegation is that they were tortured.
We have one client, ‘Ahmed’ for example who, the dog treatment, being sprayed with cold water in the middle of the winter. Being stripped down naked, which is particularly humiliating within the Arab culture. And also not only himself having been tortured according to his allegations, but having to have watched his father be tortured. And subsequently the torture was so severe, for those who say that this is not happening, that is father actually died.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But the allegation is that this guy, Ahmed, had to watch his father die as a result of treatment–
RON DANIELS: Well, yeah. He watch– I mean in other words it was so, I mean so sadistic if you will, the notion of having to watch, you know this process take place. So this is very horrific stuff, very horrific stuff.
And the question is, “Why is the United States government in any event hiring private contractors to do this work?” I mean it’s like interrogation for hire. It’s like torture for hire if indeed these allegations —
DAVID BRANCACCIO: So the argument —
RON DANIELS: — true.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: If the interrogations don’t go beyond whatever the line is into torture, that perhaps they have expertise. Perhaps they’re even more efficient you might even say of taxpayer money.
RON DANIELS: Well the interesting thing is– this is like taking privatization to another step. I mean it’s almost– it– almost inevitably in these situations where there’s a monetary– it’s like– you know torture for profit. It’s interrogation for profit. And almost inevitably in these situations where there’s a profit motive– people will go to extremes even you know, to maintain their quota, or to maintain their contract.
And these companies were profiting very handsomely from their businesses they were doing– with the US government in relationship to its interrogation– and we believe– based on the allegations of our clients– torture in the prisons in Iraq. These are US based– corporations.
So it’s a daring move on the part of the Center for Constitutional Rights. This is what we’re really known for. It is a way– and the other thing is–
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But it’s daring in the sense that the next thing that happens when you file a lawsuit and it really starts moving forward, is discovery. And won’t– the companies involved say, “Hey, this stuff is secret. We’re not going to share anything with you.”
RON DANIELS: Well this is– you took the words right out of my mouth. You see, one of the things that’s important is discovery, is that we don’t know that we can trust the US government or its agent, the Army and so forth, to investigate itself. In fact, history would suggest that this is not necessarily the best practice.
So one of the reasons why a lawsuit like this is extraordinarily important is ’cause it does give us a right to get discovery. It does give us a right to investigate and examine exactly what was going on. This is in fact an inquiry on– in– to some degree on the part of the public. This is the way for average ordinary citizens to conduct their own investigation, for us to get an even deeper view of what was going on to what the US government– describes as being just a narrow set of isolated incidents. We now believe that it was much more widespread and much more pervasive and much more frankly, brutal than they’ve even been willing to admit.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well Ron Daniel, Center for Constitutional Rights, thank you so much.
RON DANIELS: Thank you for having me.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: We now move from innovative and possibly specious — arguments about executive power to innovative — and possibly illegal ways to use money to consolidate power. The man who is one of the driving forces of American politics doesn’t have much in the way of national name recognition.
Quick, who is the House Majority Leader? The answer is, Tom DeLay, Republican from Texas. They call him “The Hammer.” He’s very good at enforcing party discipline and very good at attracting buckets of money for the Republican party from big companies. Tom DeLay delivers. And he’s proud of it. He even boasted he’s ‘the most investigated man in America.’ You’re about to see why, in our story produced by Bryan Myers.
Republican Tom DeLay has been called, “Congress’s undisputed master of the fundraising universe.” As majority leader of the House of Representatives, he runs a wide network of campaign funding raising groups.
To give you an idea of how good he is, consider this: during the last election, candidates for the House raised an average of around $300,000. During a similar period, DeLay’s groups raised over 14 million dollars.
Much of the money DeLay raises comes from corporations seeking favors and the Washington lobbying firms who represent them.
LOU DUBOSE: He’s the perfect candidate for the business community. And in turn, they’re the perfect funders for him.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Lou Dubose is a journalist who’s spent years following DeLay’s career. He’s currently working on a biography of DeLay.
Would you say the Congressman has found really the intersection between the interests of American business and politics?
LOU DUBOSE: I don’t think he has found it. I think he is it. I mean, he has established himself as that intersection.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: DeLay is an unapologetic booster of big business. And he usually gets his way, even if that means bending a few rules. We’ll hear more later on allegations that have led to a scandal in Texas -but in Washington, it’s been one success after another. Delay scheduled a midnight vote to privatize parts of Medicare. Holding the vote open for three hours until it finally passed was unprecedented.
And when big media companies opposed a bipartisan bill that would limit their growth, DeLay made sure it never got to the floor. Simply put, the House, under his leadership, has aggressively pushed a pro-business agenda.
TOM DELAY (FROM TAPE): This type of overregulation stifles job creation, efficiency, and innovation in this country…
DAVID BRANCACCIO: In fact, DeLay has make a career out of attacking government as the enemy of business.
DELAY ON HOUSE FLOOR FROM TAPE): I’ve been collecting horror stories about regulations every year I’ve been in Congress—
DAVID BRANCACCIO: To understand why DeLay denounces big government, Lou Dubose says you need to look at the roots of his political career. In the 1970’s, DeLay owned a pest control company in Houston. And he blamed the Environmental Protection Agency for crippling his business.
LOU DUBOSE: In 1978, the EPA banned Myrex, which was a very effective pesticide to kill fire ants. DeLay went crazy. With that he began railing against the EPA. He ran on Myrex. He ran on, “I’m going to get government off your back.” And then deregulation became his theme.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And over the years, it’s been the theme DeLay has come back to time and time again. After the Republicans took control of the house under Newt Gingrich in 1994, DeLay began his ascent through the Republican leadership. It was then he launched a much publicized effort to dramatically cut back the enforcement power of the federal regulatory agencies.
DELAY (FROM TAPE): A critical promise we made to the American people was to get government off their backs! And the EPA, the Gestapo of government, has pure and simply been one of the major clawholds the government has maintained on the backs of our constituents.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Given DeLay’s loathing of government, many businesses are eager to write checks to fundraising groups run by DeLay. And there’s an additional benefit: The groups DeLay runs are almost exclusively focused on helping more pro-business candidates get elected to Congress. So by giving money to DeLay, business interests are able to put friendly faces in Congress.
LOU DUBOSE: You know, in politics, it is important to be lucky. He was elected at the time that the principles he holds sacred, and that is that the best government is the most limited government, the principles he holds sacred began to generate revenue. Because the business community saw that here’s a vehicle by which we can get government off our backs.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: DeLay has even gotten business that aren’t so friendly to open their wallets. He once rated lobbyists based on how much their industries gave to the Republican Party. Afterward, he called they lobbyists into his office to show them their place on the list. When asked about it, DeLay reportedly replied, “I want to know who my friends are and who my enemies are.” And when asked what his “friends” received in return, DeLay replied “Good government.”
LOU DUBOSE: He sat lobbyists down with him in his office in ’95 when the Republicans took over and said, “Look, you’re on the wrong list. You’re contributing to Democrats. You have to adjust your giving.” Pretty close to extortion. Right at the edge of the line. And he’s a master at it.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: In one notable episode DeLay retaliated against one of Washington’s biggest trade groups. Back in 1998, DeLay wanted the electronics industry to hire a lobbyist friendly to Republicans. Congressman Barney Frank remembers when the industry chose a well-known Democrat instead.
BARNEY FRANK, D-MA: They were mad that the American Electronic Association was going to hire a former Democratic Congressman, David McCurdy, instead of a Republican.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Calling it an “insult,” DeLay blocked a piece of legislation regarding the internet in order force the association to back down. The incident proved so outrageous, even the notoriously sleepy House Ethics Committee rebuked DeLay.
BARNEY FRANK, D-MA: That kind of blackmail that doesn’t belong in a democratic society.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Another DeLay practice: keeping corporate donors anonymous. He’s specialized in setting up fundraising groups that aren’t required by law to disclose their contributors. And when pressed by the media, he refuses to answer — as he did when this reporter from ABC News confronted him about who was paying for parties DeLay threw at the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia.
ABC’S BRIAN ROSS: Can you tell us the names of corporations?
TOM DELAY: There’s so many, I can’t even start.
ABC’S BRIAN ROSS: Just one or two.
TOM DELAY: There’s so many, I really can’t start.
ABC’S BRIAN ROSS: Your office says you’ll never reveal those names.
TOM DELAY: That’s right.
ABC’S BRIAN ROSS: Why not?
TOM DELAY: Because we don’t have to.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Now, those aggressive fundraising tactics have landed DeLay in hot water. Back in his home state of Texas, one of DeLay’s organizations has become the focus of a criminal investigation. The allegation — that a DeLay group was secretly funding state elections, in violation of Texas law.
RONNIE EARLE, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, TRAVIS COUNTY, TEXAS: This is about an organized movement to basically steal an election by using illegal corporate secret donations to political campaigns.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Ronnie Earle is the District Attorney for Travis County, Texas where the state capital of Austin is located. It’s his job to prosecute election irregularities in Texas.
RONNIE EARLE: Texas law makes it a felony for corporations and labor unions to make political contributions to campaigns. The punishment is two to ten years in the penitentiary.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Earle and his staff are investigating one of DeLay’s political action committees called “Texans for a Republican Majority,” also known as TRMPAC. It’s accused of illegally using money from corporations to get candidates elected to state office.
Does your investigation extend all the way to the House Majority Leader of the US Congress, Tom DeLay?
RONNIE EARLE: The investigation extends as far as it needs to go to uncover the truth. That’s our job. Whoever is guilty of a crime will be a target.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: TRMPAC was DeLay’s brainchild. It set out to elect Republicans to the Texas State Legislature in a series of key races in the year 2002. To do that, TRMPAC raised 100’s of thousands of dollars in corporate contributions.
When we hear the argument made, look corporate money gets mixed in with political activities all the time, everybody does it, what’s your reaction to that argument?
RONNIE EARLY: Everybody doesn’t do it. Everybody doesn’t do it in Texas.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Craig McDonald runs a watchdog group in Austin that tracks money in politics. He’s also done some gumshoe work into the TRMPAC case, and is astonished by what he’s found. TRMPAC, working with some other groups, supported several candidates. Together, the money they raised averaged over half a million dollars per candidate. That’s six times the cost of a typical state house race in Texas.
CRAIG MCDONALD, TEXANS FOR PUBLIC JUSTICE: Right now-we think it might only be the tip of the iceberg-but right now, the allegations are that those three sources alone funneled 4.8 million, almost 5 million dollars into the Texas House elections.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Clearly all of that money didn’t hurt. Almost all the candidates DeLay’s group supported won. And in 2002, for the first time in 130 years, Republicans took control of the Texas legislature.
CRAIG MCDONALD: Tom DeLay and TRMPAC got exactly what they wanted. They wanted to unseat the Democratic Majority and replace it with a Republican majority and a speaker candidate of their own. And they were successful. We contend they were only successful because they funneled millions of dollars of illegal contributions into the campaigns.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: So exactly how does McDonald believe DeLay’s group broke the law? In Texas, political groups can accept corporate money, but can only spend it on “administrative” expenses to run their organization; they can’t spend in on activities to help candidates get elected.
CRAIG MCDONALD: Administrative expenses would be paying the light bill. You can pay the light bill, but you can’t pay your pollster. You can pay your accountant who’s doing your books, but you can’t pay your political director. You can pay the rent on the telephone on the desk of the administrator, but you can’t pay for telephone banks.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But look at what DeLay’s group was spending money on. NOW has obtained a copy of TRMPAC’s ledgers. It lists repeated expenditures of corporate money — also known as “soft” money — on seemingly forbidden activities. Here are two entries totalling almost $100,000 to a company that did polling and “get out the vote” work. And here is a series of payments to professional fundraisers. One of the fundraisers frequently listed is Coastal Consulting — a company run by Congressman DeLay’s daughter.
Were those fundraisers allowed to be paid from corporate money? One fundraiser on this list has told reporters even she thought it was wrong.
Cris Feldman is an attorney who specializes in Texas campaign finance law. He’s filed suit on behalf of several of those who lost in the last election.
Corporate money for fund-raising. You scan down here—
CRIS FELDMAN: That, in and of itself, is a violation of the prohibition against the use of corporate funds in political races.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And look at the brochure DeLay’s group sent to pitch corporate donors. It lists Tom DeLay as head of TRMPAC’s advisory board and states, quote, “Rather than just paying for overhead, your support will fund a series of productive and innovative activities,” such as candidate recruitment, message development, and market research…according to Craig McDonald, a brazen list of just the sort of political activities prohibited by Texas law.
CRAIG MCDONALD: How do you explain that statement early on, if they didn’t know they were bumping up the edge of the law? And we think they did more than bump up to the edge of it, they went over the line.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: How far over the line? There are also allegations the group laundered money. The claim? That Texans for a Republican Majority found a way to take illegal corporate money and give it to candidates using a middleman — the national Republican Party in Washington, DC.
FELDMAN: What we have here is a check from the Texans for a Republican Majority to the Republican National Committee. What we also know is that this check was initially sent to Washington DC as a blank check, and that one of DeLay’s operatives had a meeting with the RNC and then filled in the amounts to be transferred from Texans from a Republican Majority to the RNC. And it was for an amount of $190,000.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Only three weeks after TRMPAC gave that $190,000 to the national Republican Party in Washington seven candidates in Texas supported by Tom DeLay’s TRMPAC received checks from the party totalling exactly $190,000.
FELDMAN: So $190,000 in soft money went up and $190,000 in seven different checks came back down
DAVID BRANCACCIO: It’s quite striking that it’s exactly the same amount.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: They say it’s a coincidence.
FELDMAN: I think there’s a lot of coincidences down here these days.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But why was Tom DeLay, a leader of Congress, so interested in state elections in Texas? In a word: redistricting. The state legislature draws up the map of federal Congressional districts. Draw the lines right and you can create districts that favor one party or another. Once the Republicans took over the Texas legislature, they revised the Texas map in a way likely to produce more seats in Congress for conservative Republicans.
That redistricting effort sparked a furious public outcry. You may even remember the news coverage of how some Texas legislators fled the state rather than go along.
But behind the scenes, people like Craig McDonald kept quietly sifting through TRMPAC’s financial records. And when they got a closer look at who was giving to DeLay’s group, they found one more thing.
MCDONALD: 75 cents of every dollar of that money came from a corporation that has no interest in Texas at all.
Consider these e-mails from a company called Westar, an electric utility based in, Kansas. In 2002, Congress was working on the energy bill; Westar wanted a provision inserted that would help the company. So Westar executives came up with a plan to give money to DeLay. But one executive wonders, “DeLay is from Texas, what is our connection?” Another responds, “DeLay is the House Majority Leader. His agreement is necessary before the House—can push the language we have in place.”
MCDONALD: What explains most of the money we saw come into Texas through TRMPAC, through Tom DeLay’s committee, is that these corporations wanted access to Tom DeLay. They didn’t care about Texas politics.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: In the end, Westar gave $25,000 to DeLay’s group. The provision Westar wanted was put into the energy bill; it was later removed after a scandal erupted at the company which brought these e-mails to light.
Majority Leader DeLay has condemned the investigation into the TMPAC’S fundraising as “vindictive and partisan.” District Attorney Ronnie Earle is a Democrat.
RONNIE EARLE: Well, I’ve been accused of political partisanship by everybody I’ve ever prosecuted. Since I’ve been district attorney, I’ve prosecuted four times as many Democrats as Republicans. But it’s a common allegation. This is not about Democrats and Republicans. This is about cops and robbers.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Back in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike say DeLay has gotten results. DeLay has become a close ally of the president as both push for a pro-business agenda. “In Bush’s policies, business wins,” says THE WASHINGTON POST.
We asked for an interview with Congressman DeLay, his spokeperson declined. We tried to interview several close associates who run his fundraising network, including his group in Texas. They, too, declined or didn’t return our calls. We also asked several Republican members of Congress to share their thoughts about Tom DeLay. Only one was willing to speak with us. Doug Ose says he considers Tom DeLay a friend.
CONGRESSMAN DOUG OSE (R-CA): We both share a concern about the security of the country. We both share a concern about keeping the economy vibrant and growing.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But Ose’s also an advocate of campaign finance reform. In 2002, Congress outlawed corporate money in national elections. That ban hit hard DeLay’s national fundraising groups. So, Ose fears we’re going to start seeing more corporate money flow into state elections, just like it did Texas.
DOUG OSE: It’s like water. Water flows. It will find a crack.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: That was one of the criticisms of campaign finance reform, is that well, these guys will figure a way around it.
DOUG OSE: And they did. I mean people up here aren’t stupid, I’m lower gene pool and I kind of sit in amazement at watching some of them because they are pretty damn smart.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And Tom DeLay has been making news with yet another strategy. Celebrations for Children is a tax deductible charity established by DeLay, ostensibly to raise money for disadvantaged children. Instead, much of that money was earmarked to entertain Republican politicians at this year’s convention in New York.
Take a look at the brochure for Celebrations For Children. It promises big donors private dinners with “majority leader and Mrs. DeLay,” a “private yacht cruise with TD,” and parties guaranteed to be “the hottest ticket” in town. Facing criticism, DeLay has since cancelled those plans, refusing any further comment. But at the last convention in Philadelphia, he had this to say:
TOM DELAY (FROM TAPE): Everywhere you go in politics, you’re raising money in order to pay for the parties and the get togethers and conventions. And they’re trying to make some cynical story about it, and it doesn’t make sense, and the American people recognize it.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: But why even use a charitable organization to raise money to throw parties for Republicans? One reason — the donors remain anonymous. The public would never know which corporations are giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a private audience with Tom DeLay. District Attorney Earle in Texas says that kind of secrecy should be a call to arms.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: And someone watching in Wisconsin, in California, in Florida, should pay attention to what you’re doing here?
RONNIE EARLE: Absolutely. In a democracy, we have a job to do. That’s what we’re called to do as citizens in a democracy, is pay attention to what our elected officials are doing and pay attention to what the corporations we do business with are doing. And when we don’t pay attention, we lose our democracy. And there are people who would love to steal democracy and use it as a way to make money. That’s the danger here.
BILL MOYERS: You surely noticed the common denominator between our first two stories in this broadcast – between those documents on torture the administration refuses to make public, and those huge sums of money Tom DeLay raises to reward his friends and punish his enemies. The common denominator is secrecy.
So thick are the walls of secrecy in government now that nineteen bureau chiefs in Washington got together the other day and agreed to fight harder for the public’s right to know. They are outraged, among other things, that the Bush White House is waging a relentless war against the Freedom of Information Act that’s supposed to open up government documents to the public.
The President of the Associated Press is outraged, too. Tom Curley runs the world’s largest news organization, with more than fifteen thousand media outlets worldwide.
Curley, who started as a reporter at the age of 15 made an important speech calling for a ‘media advocacy center’ to lobby for open government in Washington.’ I went over to his offices this week at Rockefeller Center for a conversation. We began by talking about that Justice Department memo on torture.
Is this part of what you say is at stake in the fight over secrecy?
TOM CURLEY: It is. And I think it’s part of a larger pattern about journalism. About the executive branch, what the Senate’s responsibilities are. Whether they’re providing sufficient oversight. I think this is a pivotal moment in this administration’s history. And how the Senate responds in terms of the Senate’s own power and also what questions journalism– the journalists will raise in response.
BILL MOYERS: Something’s really going on that got your dander up. Because you made that very powerful speech a couple of weeks ago in California. And you said this is a fight we’re in. What’s at stake?
TOM CURLEY: Well, what happened is as I’ve traveled around the United States, I thought I had begun to see a pattern about increasing secrecy. So I came back, talked to some people at the Associated Press. And we circulated our chiefs of bureau around the United States. And what happened– what the results were a bit of a surprise. That this was more severe. It was at all levels. State, local, and federal. It involved the courts as well as administrative departments. If you file an FOI request.
BILL MOYERS: Freedom of Information.
TOM CURLEY: Request in Washington, it can take months, years, to get a response. And there’s a change. Some of that’s a result of 9/11 and some of that’s expected. But a lot of this goes well beyond 9/11 and it’s about other factors.
BILL MOYERS: So some of your bureau chiefs were saying that at the local level the state level secrecy was increasing?
TOM CURLEY: In fact, they thought as you got closer to the local government, Close to home, really the folks were more likely to think those records were theirs, not the people’s.
BILL MOYERS: Belonged to the officials.
TOM CURLEY: Belonged to the officials– yeah.
BILL MOYERS: So you say from the grass roots up, in effect, from local communities all the way up into Washington? A growing pattern?
TOM CURLEY: A growing pattern that was consistent. At local, state, federal levels of government and also in the courts. Not just the executive branches. But in the courts.
BILL MOYERS: You tell of an Associated Press photographer covering a train wreck in New Jersey, arrested by the police when he steps on to railroad property to try to get a picture of the wreckages. And he’s hauled off in a squad car?
TOM CURLEY: Exactly, there’s too much of a pattern. There’s too much going on and it’s at too many places in government.
BILL MOYERS: But some people do say that we’re living in a time of terror, of heightened security and that we just have to sacrifice a little openness for more security. You buy that?
TOM CURLEY: Well, it’s an awfully slippery slope. And we know from history, when we start closing doors, bigger problems arise. It’s possible to say that in the aftermath, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we didn’t know the scope of the attack, we didn’t know what was happening to us. And so, for a period of time the journalism community and others may have been right in taking a step back and saying let’s find out what’s going on.
And you could have explained away some of the government activities by saying we need to keep everything quiet. We need to assess the threat to the United States. But this has gone on. And it’s gone on in bizarre ways. And it’s gone on in ways that are totally unconnected to the terrorism of 9/11.
BILL MOYERS: After 9/11 Attorney General John Ashcroft with the President’s approval told federal officials that he was reversing the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. What did you make of that?
TOM CURLEY: A declaration and an order that went out to the Freedom of Information officers, the people who are supposed to make that information available they heard it. A third of them one year later self reported that they were filling fewer requests. So he was successful.
A law wasn’t passed but his advocacy changed how the government responded. If we don’t push back other people will come forward and make other declarations. And it will be even harder to get information.
BILL MOYERS: The spokesman for the attorney general says the government is just as open as its ever been. He goes on to say quote that, “Any perceived secrecy, any perceived secrecy, has to do with the fact that we’re at war with a global terrorist network that wants to kill innocent Americans.” That’s what the government spokesman’s saying.
TOM CURLEY: There was a great story in the WASHINGTON POST this week that said requests for Freedom of Information, for documents, the government documents that have been around since well before 9/11 back into the early nineties haven’t been fulfilled. A lot of this effort, a lot of this has been contracted out. The effort to take documents and make them available has been contracted out.
BILL MOYERS: So they’re privatizing —
TOM CURLEY: Privatizing —
BILL MOYERS: — public access to the government?
TOM CURLEY: — has lead to more secrecy. Where are the records? Who knows where they are. There’s more confusion there ever has been. The one guy said, these records won’t be available before I die. We’ve made every effort here to suggest that these things have happened before 9/11. There is a 9/11 element but there’s a trend here and it’s time to reverse that trend.
BILL MOYERS: How much are we journalists to blame for this, Tom Curley? I mean we go along with government. We’re allowed top officials to brief us without identifying them in our stories. I mean, Condoleezza Rice could tell us that George W. Bush walked across the swimming pool at the White House last night and we would say top official says miracle occurs at high level of government. I mean are we to blame for all this?
TOM CURLEY: Well, I hope we wouldn’t do that one. But —
BILL MOYERS: Why are we so timid? What’s happened to us?
TOM CURLEY: Well, I’m not sure we’re timid across the board. I think we’re back on our heels. And I don’t know. One wonders if it’s the economy. One wonders if we’re threatened by the eroding losses to new media. Or, one wonders whether we’re just focused on other things. Covering entertainment more.
One of the things that has troubled me as I’ve gone around the country and looked at newspapers is we seem to be bored to death with this presidential race. And I think a lot of the coverage we’re reading is very pedestrian. We have the obligatory round up story in every day.
And then maybe once a week or once a month we’ll have a — you’ll see a longer story in a newspaper about some issue or something like that. But there’s not the excitement about it. And maybe people are saying well this campaign goes on too long. There’s too much noise. But I wonder. I wonder if we’re tilting our coverage to the entertainment side.
BILL MOYERS: In an era when Britney Spears is news, I mean how do we make people care about access to public documents?
TOM CURLEY: Oh I think we make it so it reads in their best interest. There are any number of stories that have direct bearing on people.
So we’ve got to boil it down into what somebody around here calls three bear language.
BILL MOYERS: Three bear language?
TOM CURLEY: Baby bear, Daddy bear, Mommy bear, just get it in language that’s so simple that people understand. And I think that’s what we have to work on.
BILL MOYERS: So if Momma bear, Pappa bear, Baby bear are mistakenly arrested and held in detention without public notice you want to make sure that they’re not treated like those prisoners in Abu Ghraib right?
TOM CURLEY: We certainly want to makes sure their rights are intact and everybody knows their rights at every stage of the process.
BILL MOYERS: A student once asked one of our colleagues, Richard Reeves to define “real news.” And Richard Reeves said real news is the news we need to keep our freedoms. And I thought of that when I read your speech about the Abu Ghraib prison. When you said that “what this shows is that given the chance, Americans would do the same bad things to other people that others do.”
What you’re saying is– if you’re not careful, we won’t know what we’re doing to other people. That we’ll practice the same kind of secrecy and bad habits that other people do. Except for a free press to tell us what’s at stake.
TOM CURLEY: And at the times of greatest national import, we need the information more than ever. And we need the right information.
We broke a story on the abuses in the prison last October. It got almost zero play. It was the pictures that made a difference. Everybody could see in a second what had happened. So, you have to have this information. You have to be able to see what your government’s doing. And if you go back to the events that define our careers around Vietnam, if you go back further, World War II and think about the efforts to keep information away from people, there were problems. And the government did not do what it should have done.
And we didn’t do what we should have done in the journalism community. And it created a greater problem. So history is filled with examples of what happens when the door to information shuts. Freedom goes away.
BILL MOYERS: You say we have to fight fire with fire. What does that mean?
TOM CURLEY: I remember years ago when somebody tried to shut something down the newspapers and broadcasters would make a stink. And things happen now. There were a number of instances with people who were detained around 9/11 and everybody took a pass. Nobody went after that information. And that’s the most egregious example lately of us not going forward and asserting our rights here and the rights of what normally would be justice and freedom and keeping things in the open.
BILL MOYERS: You have suggested that we may need a media advocacy center in Washington to lobby for open government. What would that do?
TOM CURLEY: It would put is front and center in the fight to keep information public. The times have changed. We’ve got out there. We think we’ve seen a set of facts that suggest we need to do this.
We’ve called together the organizations that normally advocate for open government. We’ll see if there’s support. I think we need to go — we need to take this step. It’s pretty clear we’re in a different era in the United States.
BILL MOYERS: Thomas Kean, former Governor of New Jersey, Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said he’s astonished at the number of documents that were classified — unnecessarily classified as secret by the government.
TOM CURLEY: Every time you do a study you find out that there’s 90 percent more documents that have been classified than should’ve been. And much of it has nothing to do. And you’re seeing that being reflected again at state and local levels. You’ll see it in the courts. Let’s close. Let’s keep it’s easier. Keep the press out. Keep the noise out. At some point you got to throw up your arms and say, “Stop it’s gone too far.” I think we’ve reached that point.
BILL MOYERS: So that’s what’s at stake in this.
TOM CURLEY: This is about freedom. And it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. Freedoms can go quietly. Step by step, carefully over time. And the most important part of this process we in journalism believe is keeping the spotlight on those rights.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you Tom Curley.
TOM CURLEY: Thank you Bill.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for NOW. David Brancaccio and I will be back next week. I’m Bill Moyers. Thanks for joining us.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.