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Donors underwrite life of luxury for DeLay
December 22, 2005

WASHINGTON - As Tom DeLay became a king of campaign fundraising, he lived like one too. He visited cliff-top Caribbean resorts, golf courses designed by PGA champions and four-star restaurants — all courtesy of donors who bankrolled his political money empire.

Over the past six years, the former House majority leader and his associates have visited places of luxury most Americans have never seen, often getting there aboard corporate jets arranged by lobbyists and other special interests.

Public documents reviewed by The Associated Press tell the story: at least 48 visits to golf clubs and resorts; 100 flights aboard company planes; 200 stays at hotels, many world-class; and 500 meals at restaurants, some averaging nearly $200 for a dinner for two.

Instead of his personal expense, the meals and trips for DeLay and his associates were paid with donations collected by the campaign committees, political action committees and children's charity the Texas Republican created during his rise to the top of Congress. His lawyer says the expenses are part of DeLay's effort to raise money from Republicans and to spread the GOP message.

Put them together and a lifestyle emerges.

"A life to enjoy. The excuse to escape," Palmas del Mar, an oceanside Puerto Rican resort visited by DeLay, promised in a summer ad on its Web site as a golf ball bounced into a hole and an image of a sunset appeared.

The Caribbean vacation spot has casino gambling, horseback riding, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing and private beaches.

"He was very friendly. We always see the relaxed side of politicians," said Daniel Vassi, owner of the French bistro Chez Daniel at Palmas del Mar. Vassi said DeLay has eaten at his restaurant every year for the last three, and was last there in April with about 20 other people, including the resort's owners.

The restaurant is a cozy and popular place on the yacht-lined marina at Palmas del Mar. Dishes include bouillabaisse for about $35.50, Dover sole for $37.50 and filet mignon for $28.50. Palmas del Mar is also a DeLay donor, giving $5,000 to DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority PAC in 2000.

More leeway than most candidates
Since he joined the House leadership as majority whip in 1995, DeLay has raised at least $35 million for his campaign, PACs, foundation and legal defense fund. He hasn't faced a serious re-election threat in recent years, giving him more leeway than candidates in close races to spend campaign money.

AP's review found DeLay's various organizations spent at least $1 million over the last six years on hotels, restaurants, golf resorts and corporate jet flights for their boss and his associates.

While it's illegal for a lawmaker to tap political donations for a family vacation, it is perfectly legal to spend it in luxury if the stated purpose is raising more money or talking politics.

Until his recent indictment in Texas on political money laundering charges, DeLay was the second most powerful lawmaker in the House and as such, could command an audience of donors wherever he went.

DeLay attorney Don McGahn declined to identify which trips listed in the reports were taken by DeLay and which by his associates. But he said all the travel was legal and not done for DeLay's benefit. "Raising political money costs money," he said.

"Mr. DeLay has done extensive fundraising, and traveled far and wide to do so, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has raised more for others, whether for candidates or political parties," McGahn said.

Special interests routinely make donations and attend fundraisers to gain access to government decisionmakers. And while other congressional leaders accepted trips and used political money to cover travel, none compares with DeLay:

  • Campaign and PAC reports filed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., show several payments to companies for travel, including Cracker Barrel, Union Pacific, Schering-Plough and Home Depot. But there were few visits to golf courses, and those were mostly close to home.
  • Reports from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., show expenses at resorts in South Carolina, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. But he too holds most events closer to home, like Las Vegas casinos and Lake Tahoe resorts.
  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has held events at ritzy hotels such as The Mark in New York and the Four Seasons in Atlanta, but had few corporate flights or visits to resorts, her reports show.
  • House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., comes closest to rivaling DeLay's travels, reporting fundraisers at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts in Florida, the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, Hawaii, the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Waterfall Resort in Alaska. Hastert's groups also paid for dozens of corporate jet flights and restaurant meals

'It's obscene'
Some say DeLay pushes the limits, and risks alienating donors.

"I don't think the people that contributed to me would believe it was a good expenditure of their hard-earned dollars for me to go and play golf and enjoy life anywhere," said former Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a fiscally conservative Texas Democrat who lost his House seat following DeLay-led redistricting.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a Republican author of legislation that reformed campaign finance, was just as critical of DeLay's spending habits.
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"It's excessive, it's obscene, it distorts someone's ability to have good judgment," said Shays, a longtime critic of DeLay. "It's an abuse of campaign finance law and of our ethics law. It's harmful to Congress in general and the Republican Party in particular. We need a new leader."

A $50 contributor to one of DeLay's political groups wasn't phased by the spending, saying he gives to politicians who share his political views. "I guess it's almost an automatic fifty bucks to anybody who's on my side," said George Wrenn, a retired architectural historian from Freedom, N.H.

DeLay's travels with recently indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff are now under criminal investigation. But those trips were paid by special interests directly under the banner of congressional fact-finding.

DeLay's own political empire has underwritten far more travel.

The destinations for DeLay or his political team include a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Jamaica; the Prince Hotel in Hapuna Beach, Hawaii; the Michelangelo Hotel in New York; the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa in Fajardo, Puerto Rico; and the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., built by Charles Keating before he became the most public face of the savings and loan scandal in the early 1990s.

There's also the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla., offering "dazzling views of the Gulf of Mexico, warm golden sunsets and three miles of pristine beach" plus golf, a spa, goose-down comforters, marble bathrooms and private, ocean-view balconies. Rooms run from about $389 to more than $3,000 a night in December, the month DeLay's PAC spent $4,570 on lodging there in 2004.

"He liked to talk to people," said Pedro Muriel, a waiter at Puerto Rico's El Conquistador Resort. Muriel recalled DeLay staying in an enclave of privately owned red tile-roofed villas.

The villas have up to three bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and French doors that open onto terraces or balconies facing the Caribbean. A moon-shape pool hugs the edge of a steep cliff, its waters spilling over and appearing to blend into the sea. Villa prices average about $1,300 a night.

Guests get their own butlers. The resort offers six swimming pools and an 18-hole championship golf course. Its casino served as the setting for the last scene in the James Bond movie "Goldfinger."

DeLay's donors have also financed visits to country clubs and tournament-quality golf courses, including the exclusive Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., site of this summer's PGA Championship; Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pa., home of another PGA event; and Harbour Town Golf Links, a course on Hilton Head Island, S.C., that was designed in consultation with Jack Nicklaus.

"World class. Dynamic. Luxury resort. Spend a day, spend a week, spend a lifetime," another DeLay fundraising spot, the ChampionsGate golf resort near Orlando, Fla., invites on its Web site.

The resort, where a round of golf typically costs $70 to $80 per player on top of lodging, has two championship courses designed by pro golfer Greg Norman and offers players a Global Positioning Satellite system it boasts "acts as a professional caddie."

Dining at fine restaurants also is routine. The stops for DeLay and his associates include Morton's of Chicago, where the average dinner for two goes for about $170 before tax and tip, and "21" in Manhattan, a longtime glamour spot where American caviar goes for $38 for a taste.

Donation-paid jets
When DeLay wants to head somewhere without the hassle of commercial travel, he often asks a company for its jet and uses donations to pay for it.

Dozens of businesses have loaned DeLay their planes, from tobacco giants UST, RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris to energy companies like El Paso, Panda, Reliant and Dynegy.

R.J. Reynolds let DeLay use a company plane at least nine times since 1999, once joining Philip Morris in making jets available for a DeLay PAC fundraiser at a Puerto Rican resort in winter 2002. R.J. Reynolds spokesman David Howard said planes are loaned usually at lawmakers' request and are only done if jets aren't needed for company business.

"It's much more convenient as opposed to your regular commercial travel," Howard said, noting there is no need to go through airport security.

On R.J. Reynolds' planes, smoking is allowed and there are usually beverages and deli-style food. There's more leg room and the convenience of phones.

The smoking rule suits DeLay, who likes to chomp on cigars while golfing and reported spending at least $1,930 in PAC money on cigar-shop purchases. The cigars were reported to the Federal Election Commission as donor gifts.

DeLay's political committee also reported a $2,896 shopping spree at the Amelia Marche Burette gift shop on Amelia Island, Fla., for donor gifts. The shop carries "gourmet cookware, Sabatier cutlery and gadgets for your every need."
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