Gifts in High Places

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Lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave expensive gifts to key members of then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's staff, which the aides accepted in apparent violation of House ethics rules, according to two sources who worked at Abramoff's law firm at the time Abramoff made the gifts. The gifts included high-end golf equipment, tickets to sporting events and concerts and, in the case of one high-ranking DeLay staff member, a weekend getaway paid for by Abramoff's own frequent flyer and hotel points, two sources who had direct knowledge of the transactions tell TIME.

The two sources say that one recipient of the gifts, including the weekend trip and expensive golf clubs, was Tony C. Rudy, who worked for DeLay for five years and served at various times as DeLay's press secretary, policy director, general counsel and deputy chief of staff when DeLay was House Majority Whip. When Rudy left DeLay's office in 2000, he joined Abramoff at the law firm Greenberg Traurig. Since 2002, Rudy has worked at Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying firm headed by former DeLay Chief of Staff Ed Buckham.

A spokesman for Abramoff said he is unavailable for comment. Rudy has not returned repeated calls requesting comment.

DeLay's current chief of staff, Tim Berry, told TIME that he recalls Abramoff giving him a golf club while they were playing golf in the late 1990s, or possibly as late as 2000, when Berry was a floor assistant to DeLay. Berry said he found the situation awkward, and "got rid of it" a few days later, and added that in the current environment, he now wishes he had simply given back the gift to Abramoff. Berry could not recall the make of the club, which he believes was a wood, and said he does not know whether its value would have exceeded the gift limit under the House rules.

Rudy was one of two staff members who joined DeLay on a trip to Scotland and England in 2000—a trip in which the airfare was paid for by Abramoff's credit card, the Washington Post revealed earlier this week. House rules prohibit lobbyists from paying for the travel of members and their staffs, even if they are subsequently reimbursed by others. DeLay's office maintains that he believed and continues to believe that the trip was sponsored and paid for by a non-profit public policy institute, the National Center for Public Policy Research, which would have been allowable under House rules. At the time, Abramoff served on the NCPPR board.

Under House ethics rules, no member or employee of the House may accept a gift valued at more than $50, or a series of gifts worth more than $100 over the course of a year. The rules stipulate that gifts covered under the limit include "services, training, transportation, lodging and meals, whether provided in kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred." Republicans tightened the rules considerably after they took control of the House in 1995, having been elected in part on their promise to clean up the chamber's ethical standards. The previous rule allowed members and their staff to accept gifts from a single source up to a cumulative value of $250 over the course of a year.

The revelation comes at a time when the House ethics committee, which would normally be the body that would investigate such matters, has ceased to function. Democrats on the committee object to rules changes that they say were designed to protect DeLay by making it more difficult to launch an investigation. The new rules would require a majority vote—which means support from at least one Republican on the panel—for the committee to begin a probe. But now, House Republican leaders, realizing that the rule change has been a political disaster for them, are scrambling to find a way to repeal it.

Rudy's biography on the firm's website boasts that he was once ranked on one of Capitol Hill's top 50 staff members by Roll Call newspaper. "As Deputy Chief of Staff to the House Majority Whip, Tony had extraordinary access and influence in the legislative process," his biography claims. "He ran DeLay's well-known member services operation that enabled Tony to develop personal relationships with dozens of House members including current members of the House Leadership, Committee Chairman (sic) and members of key committees including the Appropriations Committee, Commerce Committee, the Ways and Means Committee and the Financial Services Committee. Tony also has extensive contacts with hundreds of key staff members in Congress."