Former House Majority Leader, Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, left, prepares to tee off as President Bush swings in the background during a morning golf outing with three House Republicans at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in this July 27, 2002 file photo. As DeLay became a king of political fundraising, he lived like one too. Over the past six years, the Republican and his aides have 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. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert, Files)
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Jack Nicklaus-designed
course on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
"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.
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
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."