Democrats sue DeLay, will seek to have racketeering charges filed

WASHINGTON - House Democrats yesterday filed suit against Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, accusing him of extortion and money laundering.

The civil suit alleges DeLay pressured contributors into donating to the GOP and then directed that money to nonprofit political groups that do not disclose their donors or how they are spending the money. It alleges that DeLay's actions constitute a violation of federal racketeering laws.

"Never before has a senior congressional and party leader devised a scheme like this: hammering contributors for money, threatening to punish those who decline and setting up a shadow party structure outside public view and outside our laws to make it possible," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

DeLay spokeswoman Emily Miller called the allegations "utterly invalid and baseless," adding that they reflected Democrats' "desperation and willingness to go to any lengths to win seats in the November election."

The Democrats' suit did not present new facts about the multiple organizations with ties to DeLay and his aides, including the Republican Majority Issues Committee, the U.S. Family Network and Americans for Economic Growth.

DeLay has actively promoted groups such as RMIC and U.S. Family Network, helping them raise money, and he suggested that the National Republican Congressional Committee give the U.S. Family Network $500,000 last year. His former aides work as fund-raisers, consultants and directors for the organizations, all of which seek to advance conservative goals.

DCCC counsel Robert Bauer said that while many lawmakers aid like-minded independent groups, DeLay effectively had established a "shadow political party organization" that evaded campaign-finance laws by funneling donations into secretive operations.

"These are not random acts of coercive fund-raising," Bauer said. "This is a systematic effort to build a political organization based on illicit fund-raising and the use of organizations to conceal that money."

Some legal experts questioned whether federal racketeering laws can be applied successfully to such activities.

University of Michigan visiting law professor G. Robert Blakey, who helped draft RICO and has litigated in the field, says the statute applies to extortion in business and personal activities, not political dealings.

If the court lets the case get to the discovery stage, however, legal experts said it could force the disclosure of wealthy GOP donors in the same way the 1997 campaign-finance investigation produced a list of contributors to Triad, another conservative group.