DeLay And Company

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Ed Buckham's name was one you didn't hear much outside the secluded corridor where he worked on the first floor of the Capitol. But in that suite, which houses the majority whip's offices, Buckham was far more than an ordinary congressional aide in the three heady years following the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Thanks to an unusually close and trusting relationship with his boss, Tom DeLay's chief of staff quietly became one of the most powerful people in Washington. "He was the guy DeLay turned to when he made a final decision," recalls a former aide to a member of the House Republican leadership, "and even after he made the final decision, the guy who could talk him out of it." What even fewer people outside that office knew was that the two shared a bond that transcended power and politics: Buckham, a licensed nondenominational minister, was also DeLay's pastor. For a while, in DeLay's early days as whip, they organized daily voluntary prayer sessions for the staff—until it began making some aides uncomfortable. After that, according to two sources who worked in the office at the time, the two of them frequently prayed together privately, joining hands in DeLay's office.

Buckham shared not only DeLay's religious faith but also his audacious vision for harnessing the financial and political clout of business and conservative interests to carry out the G.O.P. agenda and increase its majority in Congress. DeLay offered lobbyists the best seats they had ever had at the table, a say in legislative and political strategy, on the understanding that they in return would pour millions into DeLay's favored causes and candidates. In addition, he threatened to shut out lobbying shops that employed Democrats. In Washington that seamless coordination between his office and the lobbying corridor of K Street has become known as DeLay Inc. It developed the muscle to push or block pretty much everything DeLay asked for, from protecting tax breaks for low-wage garment manufacturers on the Northern Mariana Islands (where DeLay spent New Year's Day 1998 with his wife and Buckham) to creating a Medicare prescription-drug plan that critics say is a better deal for pharmaceutical companies than it is for seniors.

Now the machinery that DeLay and his pastor built threatens to derail DeLay. He was slapped three times last year by the House ethics committee for violations of House rules, and finds himself potentially facing more serious trouble on multiple fronts. Each day seems to bring another embarrassing headline and more lawmakers' being caught up in allegations of impropriety that surround the lobbyists—many, like Buckham, former DeLay staff members—who have traded on their access to him. The Washington Post reported last week that DeLay (as well as six other Representatives from both parties and several congressional aides) had over the past four years accepted trips to South Korea, paid for by a registered foreign agent—a violation of House rules.

As it happens, the foreign agent in question—a group called the Korea- U.S. Exchange Council, funded largely by the Korean holding company Hanwha Group—lists its address as the same waterfront Georgetown office suite as Buckham's lobbying business. Edward Stewart, who not only manages international business for Buckham's Alexander Strategy Group but also is the Korean group's Washington representative, declined to comment on the controversy. Buckham, 46, did not return telephone calls and e-mails seeking an interview. The lawmakers named by the Post, including DeLay, say they were not aware that the group was a foreign agent. Indeed, it didn't register as one until three days before DeLay left for his trip to South Korea in August 2001.

Where the controversy goes from here is difficult to say. DeLay's increasingly precarious situation has paralyzed the House ethics committee. Democrats on the committee, one of the few in Congress in which they have as many votes as Republicans do, have shut it down.

The Democrats refuse to accept a new rule that would prevent the committee from launching any investigation without the support of at least one Republican—a restriction designed to protect the majority leader. The strain is showing on DeLay, who was treated in a hospital last week for fatigue and an irregular heartbeat. And for the first time, a significant number of Republicans have begun to question DeLay's political survival. Frets a senior G.O.P. Congressman about the odor surrounding DeLay: "It just isn't going away."

The political operation that DeLay and Buckham built pushed hard against the boundaries of campaign-finance laws—and on occasion overstepped them. The National Republican Congressional Committee agreed last year to pay a $280,000 fine for improperly transferring $500,000 in 1999 to an outside organization to run radio ads against Democrats. Buckham had convinced the Republican Party to make the donation to the group. Although he maintained that he was merely a fund raiser for the organization, his wife was on its payroll (earning $59,000 in 1997), its truck was registered at his residence, and his lobbying business operated at the time from a town house the group owned. Democrats, howling that the whole operation was a front for DeLay's political machine, filed a racketeering lawsuit against the whip. They later settled, after DeLay spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

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