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Bill Berkowitz: Tom Delay's Right Arm

Tom Delay's Right Arm

Inside the National Center for Public Policy Research, a right wing foundation DeLay calls 'the Center for conservative communications'
By Bill Berkowitz

After weeks of haggling, it looks like the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (also known as the House ethics committee) -- loaded down with Republicans that have received significant support from Rep. Tom DeLay's organizations -- will investigate the House Majority Leader's ethics problems. Don't expect too much from the committee -- the only one in the House evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats -- for at least six months to a year, the Los Angeles Times' Mary Curtius recently warned.

According to Curtius, "Under the most likely scenario, Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the panel chairman, and Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, will review the news reports and jointly notify DeLay that he is the subject of a preliminary investigation. At that point, Hastings and Mollohan may informally question DeLay and others.

"If that informal inquiry raises enough questions, the full committee will be asked to vote to form an investigative subcommittee with the power to subpoena witnesses and documents."

"In this case, the stakes are particularly high, both for DeLay, given his history of ethics lapses, and for this committee," Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in legal and government ethics, told Curtius.

The National Center & DeLay

Charges against Rep. DeLay, the former exterminator, have been scurrying across the front pages of America's daily newspapers faster than the varmints he used to wipe out back in Texas. In one recent week, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published articles raising more questions about the House Leader's judgment and ethics. As cherry blossoms blanket the nation's capital, the bloom just might be falling off of DeLay's powerful political machine.

While President Bush embraced DeLay, other Republicans aren't so sure: Last month, both moderate Republican Congressman Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Senator Rick Santorum, the right wing Pennsylvania Senator up for re-election in 2006, stated that DeLay needed to come clean about all of the details involved with the assorted junkets he's gone on over the past several years and the questionable relationships he's developed with lobbyists.

A number of press accounts about DeLay's National Center-sponsored trip to Moscow in 1997 focused on accusations that the trips were funded in part by private Russian companies, and not by the National Center as DeLay's staff claimed. In a statement, the National Center bit the bullet and took responsibility for the trip's payment. The statement reads in part: "The National Center for Public Policy Research sponsored and paid for educational trips to Russia and to Great Britain in 1997 and 2000 that included, at our invitation, Congressman Tom DeLay, Mrs. DeLay and Congressional staff members... The National Center for Public Policy Research was careful to pay all the expenses associated with Congressman DeLay's trip. Reports to the contrary are incorrect."

(For two fine summaries of the evolving DeLay story see DeLay under fire: What's at Stake from USA Today and When Tom Met Jack -- Inside the cozy relationship between Tom DeLay and D.C.'s most notorious lobbyist. Could it take the leader down? from Time.)

The National Center for Public Policy Research (NCRRP) is a tax-exempt 501 (C)(3) Washington, DC-based operation. Even to those paying attention to right wing matters, the NCRRP has never had the verve or cache of such Washington-DC-based right wing think tanks as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, or the Cato Institute.

In fact, the only reason we are hearing so much about the organization these days is due to reports linking it to DeLay and his ethics problems. While news of the group's involvement with the beleaguered House Majority Leader surfaced in a number of press accounts, Media Matters for America -- a non-profit liberal media watchdog group "dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media" -- charged that the mainstream media had a problem identifying the conservative pedigree of the group.

Media Matters identified several instances of mainstream press reports that neglected to mention the group's conservative roots:

a March 16 Washington Post article identified the National Center as "a nonprofit group... that covered the same amount as the cost of DeLay's London trip";

on March 17, the Post referred to it as "a... tax-exempt charity";

the March 21 issue of Time magazine reported that "Three G.O.P. House members enjoyed trips to Britain that included a round of golf at St. Andrews in Scotland; all claimed the visits were work related and funded by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a think tank";

the Chicago Tribune called the National Center "a public policy group"; and

on March 16, the Associated Press also labeled the group "a nonprofit organization."

"In fact," reports Media Matters, NCPPR, which was founded in 1982, "to provide the conservative movement with a versatile and energetic organization capable of responding quickly and decisively to fast-breaking issues," refers to itself as "'A Conservative Think Tank' in the header of its website's home page."

According to Media Transparency, NCPPR has a well-established funding stream from conservative foundations. Between 1985 and 2002 the organization received more than $2 million from such right wing heavy weights such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Castle Rock Foundation, the Randolph Foundation, the Roe Foundation, the Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Carthage Foundation.

In addition to foundation support, the NCRRP claims a broad-based network of individual donors that sustain its $6.5 million budget (2003 figures).

In the words of Tom DeLay -- prominently advertised on the National Center's Web site -- "The National Center is THE CENTER for conservative communications." The NCRRP most assuredly is more than DeLay's personal travel agent. Calling itself "a communications and research foundation," the organization is involved in a number of ongoing projects including anti-environment work, projects on national security issues and tax "reform," as well as project it calls "New Leadership in Black America."

Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, who in 1975 became the first comic strip artist ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning -- has moved off the Jeff Gannon story and recently embarked on a "DeLay death watch." Whether his "DeLay death watch" can grab headlines and earns as much credibility and influence as "America Held Hostage" -- a nightly "watch" created by ABC's Nightline program after several hundred Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979 -- remains to be seen.

Nightline's hostage watch kept the nation zeroed in on the crisis in Iran, and many argue was singularly responsible for costing President Jimmy Carter a second term. Will Trudeau's "DeLay death watch" help take down the House Majority Leader? It should be a long and bumpy ride.


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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