When Tom Met Jack

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ZIV KOREN / POLARIS

Dynamic Duo: House majority leader Tom DeLay called lobbyist Jack Abramoff one of his "dearest" friends

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The center insists the trip would have gone forward even without the contributions from Abramoff's lobbying clients and that there was nothing untoward about a board member—Abramoff, in this case—helping to arrange a center-sponsored trip. "The center believed then and the center believes now the trip was entirely appropriate, as I'm sure does Tom DeLay," says a source close to the center, which would not comment on the record. DeLay's office maintains the Congressman did important work on the trip, the highlight of which was a meeting with conservative icon Margaret Thatcher. The long-retired British Prime Minister regaled DeLay with an account of her efforts to end the cold war more than a decade earlier. As for Abramoff, a spokesman contends he is "being singled out for actions that are commonplace in Washington and are totally proper."

Perhaps, but DeLay's travel arrangements may be drawing the interest of the Justice Department. A source tells TIME that at least one former Abramoff assistant who was involved in setting up the trip to England and Scotland is scheduled to be deposed this week by the FBI, whose Washington field office has assigned half a dozen agents to an investigation into the dealings of Abramoff and his business associate, former DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon. The focus of the probe, says a senior FBI official supervising the investigation, is "allegations of any wrongdoing involving moneys that went into or left the Indian tribes." Also joining the task force are agents from the Interior Department and the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, two Senate committees are looking into various aspects of Abramoff's operation, including allegedly improper use of charities he established and persuaded his clients to fund.

All this attention on Abramoff—whom DeLay once called "one of my closest and dearest friends"—is just about the last thing the Texas Congressman, who is now the House majority leader, needs at this moment. DeLay's trip to Britain is one of three overseas jaunts that questions have been raised about. Other reports have disclosed that his wife and daughter have been paid roughly $500,000 since 2001 by DeLay's political organization. At a moment when House Republicans thought they would be celebrating the 10-year anniversary of their triumphant return to power on vows to clean up the place, they find themselves instead nearly immobilized by the ethics controversy surrounding DeLay. Though they have a full and ambitious legislative agenda, starting with President Bush's call for Social Security reform, "every meeting we have is now a meeting about Tom DeLay," complains a Republican aide. Many congressional offices have quietly shut down all travel.

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