Minutes after the news hit that a Texas grand jury had indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on one count of criminal conspiracy in a case of alleged campaign money laundering, I was in a Washington power-lunch restaurant for a prearranged encounter with Eric Dezenhall, a former Reagan administration official who is one of the top crisis management experts in town (and a writer of entertaining novels on politics, the mob, and celebrity). As I sat down at the table, I said, “The obvious question is….” Dezenhall nodded. He knew. But before he could say anything, a message came in on his Blackberry from a reporter for a major newspaper: had Dezenhall yet been retained by DeLay? He had not. He usually does not handle political cases; he prefers corporations and celebrities. But as DeLay was preparing to step down temporarily as majority leader (as is required by a House rule the GOPers tried to eliminate earlier this year), Dezenhall was happy to think aloud about what a damage-control strategy for DeLay might entail.
“The first thing he must do,” Dezenhall said, “is to realize that his objective is to get acquitted, not to look good. He must understand that damage control does not equal damage disappearance. He has to save what is save-able. He might not be able to save everything: his freedom; his political career, and his financial prospects. His life has changed; he has to focus on acquittal.” At the same time, he added, DeLay has “to stick with his brand and fight back savagely.” And will he depict himself as a martyr being crucified because of his devotion to the conservative cause? I asked. “What does he have to lose at this stage?” Dezenhall answered. “He has to dig in, stay in character and depict the indictment as unholy and agenda-driven. Show contrition? Nah, that’s total horseshit.”
Dezenhall also noted that from this day on, DeLay’s target audience is the to-be-named-later jury that will hear the criminal case against him: “He and his advisers have to concentrate and what will work with a Texas jury. A media roadshow involving someone in a legal case never pays dividends. And DeLay is sufficiently divisive and that does not lend himself well to a careful TV interview. What does pay off is whipping up the preexisting prejudices of the the jury pool.” While Dezenhall said that DeLay ought to “speak up within the confines of his brand,” he noted that DeLay “is always vulnerable to coming off looking mean, and mean does not go well with juries.” (Before DeLay became majority leader, Representative Curt Weldon, a GOP hawk, once observed, “We need someone who can go on national TV and present a good, positive image of the Republican Party and not a mean-spirited image.”)
DeLay’s team, Dezenhall continued, may also consider playing the leak game. With DeLay indicted on a conspiracy charge, it could be that Travis County DA Ronnie Earle flipped one of the coconspirators. There are several ways of establishing a conspiracy charge–say, obtaining memos or emails that lay out the conspiracy–but one clear way is by obtaining the testimony of one of the schemers. If Earle does have an insider spilling all, DeLay will need to undermine that witness–perhaps before any trial. This could lead to a “media game,” Dezenhall said. “Things are leaked to get the person or people who were flipped. This will be done through leaks to the media. The point from DeLay’s perspective is, don’t love me, but hate him.” Above all, Dezenhall added, DeLay has to proceed with the understanding that he “cannot get people to change their fundamental perception of him.”
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Shortly after this conversation, it looked as if DeLay had been at the table with us. In a videotaped statement–which precluded questions from reporters–DeLay proclaimed that Earle was a “rogue district attorney,” who had brought “one of the weakest and most baseless indictments in American history.” DeLay claimed, “I have done nothing wrong.” He noted that everyone of the “frivolous allegations” previously tossed at him by opponents had ben dismissed. That’s not precisely true. The weak-kneed House Ethics Committee last year issued two reports that showed that DeLay had improperly pressured a fellow House Republican to vote for George W. Bush’s Medicare legislation (offering to endorse the member’s son in a congressional primary if the member voted the right way), had improperly (through his staff) asked the Federal Aviation Administration to find a plane with Democratic Texas legislators who had left the state to thwart a DeLay redistricting scheme, and had improperly held a golfing fundraiser with energy executives when energy legislation was pending in Congress. For all this, DeLay received a few taps on the wrist. The ethics committee noted that three fundraisers for a political action committee linked to DeLay and eight corporate donors to this PAC had been indicted for allegedly funneling illegal contributions to GOP state candidates. Now that DeLay has been indicted as well in this case, will the ethics committee undefer action?
Besides all this, DeLay has been implicated in other rule-bending or -breaking episodes. In 1999, the ethics committee privately chastised him for threatening an industry lobby group for daring to hire a Democrat. The Washington Post once quoted an unnamed lobbyist who claimed DeLay would not allow him to plead his client’s case to the GOP leadership because he had not donated to Republicans. (Can you say “extortion”?) And, more notably, DeLay has been drawn into the net of the wide-ranging scandal involving Jack Abramoff, the indicted GOP lobbyist who allegedly bilked Indian tribes, who allegedly commited wire fraud (in a Florida casino deal that ended up with one of his minority partners being murdered allegedly by hit men), and who apparently picked up the tab for overseas trips with DeLay.
The Texas indictment–in which DeLay and his associates are accused of illegally running corporate contributions through the national Republican party in order to skirt the state ban on corporate donations to local candidates–is but one questionable episode in DeLay’s history. But it is now the biggest and most direct threat to his future. Conviction could lead to a fine and imprisonment–and removal from the House. His lawyer quickly dismissed the indictment as a “skunk.” And DeLay came out hammering. But, as Dezenhall pointed out, there is only so much DeLay can do. Spin cannot derail the criminal proceedings underway. A judge and a jury will have the last word on this indictment. The former exterminator who became arguably the most powerful man on Capitol Hill (see my piece on how he took control of NASA) is at the mercy of others whom–we assume–he cannot bully. And the damage to come may end up being beyond his control.