NOW

Transcript, June 3, 2005

DAVID BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS...

The ethical questions dogging Majority Leader Tom DeLay continue to grow. Have his favors to lobbyists led him from family values to supporting virtual slavery?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R-CT): My instinct, my gut, tells me there'll be more because Tom is constantly pushing that ethical limit to the extreme.

BRANCACCIO: And a morality tale about 'Deep Throat' that you haven't heard. A lesson in finding the balance between national security and civil liberties.


BRANCACCIO: Welcome.

This is one face of democracy...The firehouse where I go to vote. We like to think that our votes have some influence over elected representatives.

But there is a crew that works the intersection of money and politics who wield far more influence than the voters do.

I'm talking lobbyists here, and they — and their money — gravitate to those in Congress who hold power, perhaps none more so than Congressman Tom DeLay, Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Now there are questions about whether laws were broken.

Correspondent Michele Mitchell and producer Bryan Myers have our report.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Almost 8,000 miles away from Washington D.C., in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, lie the Mariana Islands. This might seem like an odd place to begin a story about Tom DeLay. But there's golfing to be found in the tropics and so we find a controversy about the ethics of the House Majority Leader.

The Marianas have been called "the sweatshop capital of the Pacific." Hidden among the swaying palms are dozens of factories where thousands of women work for subsistence wages. Each year, they churn out close to a billion dollars worth of clothes, much of it destined for stores near you.

This woman is a sewing machine operator. She was interviewed for a documentary called "Behind the Labels." Afraid of retaliation, she chose not to show her face.

GARMENT WORKER: We worked for fifteen or sixteen hours every day. And they wouldn't let us punch our time cards. We worked on Sundays and didn't get our time cards punched.

MICHELE MITCHELL: The Marianas are a Commonwealth of the United States. Technically, that means they're part of America. Clothing manufactured here even bears the label "Made in the USA." But here's the thing: many U.S. labor laws don't apply here. Back in the 1970's, Marianas officials negotiated with Congress to make sure of that. These factories depend on a steady stream of workers recruited from third world countries. Some of them net as little as $350 a year.

GEORGE MILLER (D-CA): You're talking about conditions that are as close as you can possibly come in modern America to indentured servitude, to slavery.

MICHELE MITCHELL: In the late 90's, Congressman George Miller, whose committee has oversight of the Marianas, went to investigate.

GEORGE MILLER (D-CA): These are people who are locked in overnight, against their will, under barbed wire, under guards. Were not allowed any freedom of movement. And very often were forced to work with no income. Working off of the clock, if you will. A whole range of activities that were absolutely contrary to everything "Made in the USA" stands for.

MICHELE MITCHELL: So Miller proposed a bill to extend certain laws to the Marianas, like paying workers the federal minimum wage.

A version of Miller's proposal passed the Senate, with strong bipartisan support. But in the House of Representatives, it was a different story.

MICHELE MITCHELL, CORRESPONDENT: You're saying it was never given a chance to be voted on, on the floor of the House of Representatives?

GEORGE MILLER (D-CA): No. It's one of those bills where everybody said, geez, you know, this is an outrageous situation, this really has to be fixed. But you could never get it taken up on the floor of the House.

MICHELE MITCHELL: That's because the Marianas had an ace in the hole.

ANNOUNCER: From Beverley Hill, California, Jack Abramoff!

MICHELE MITCHELL: Jack Abramoff was one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. A prominent Republican, his rise to power began in 1994, when the party recaptured the House of Representatives.

JACK ABRAMOFF: Will we ride that wave to glory of will it send us crashing to shore.

MICHELE MITCHELL: In victory, Abramoff saw a business opportunity. He wrote the Governor of the Marianas, saying he could get Congress off their back. Abramoff bragged about his "longstanding relationships with many of the Republican members of Congress." So the Marianas hired Abramoff, eventually paying him and his firm nearly nine million dollars.

Peter Stone is a reporter who's covered Abramoff's career.

PETER STONE: Jack was a very well connected, very powerful conservative figure in Washington very closed to members of Congress, and had good ties with the Bush Administration as well. But on the Hill, the person he looked to as his best friend, and who he helped raise money for, was House Majority Leader DeLay.

MICHELE MITCHELL: In 1994, Tom DeLay was moving up into Republican leadership. And it was DeLay who would become Abramoff's most important ally in the Marianas battle. DeLay was well-known for his belief that government regulation was the enemy of business.

REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX): The EPA, the Gestapo of government, pure and simply has been one of the major clawholds on American business…

MICHELE MITCHELL: DeLay greeted Marianas officials with open arms when they came to call on Capitol Hill. He promised them he'd block any attempt at reform. And he was effusive in his praise for the Commonwealth, calling it "a model" and claiming Miller's bill "would kill jobs."

MILLER: He was putting his stamp of approval on that and in a way, using his office to sort of say, "Stay away. Everything out there is fine. Take my word for it." And what that meant was those women were just going to continue to be abused.

MICHELE MITCHELL: And now, there's a new allegation. According to the LOS ANGELES TIMES, a DeLay staff member pressured two local Marianas legislators to support a local leader who opposed reforming the garment industry. In return, it's alleged, they were offered money — federal money. They agreed, and soon, their districts began receiving federal funds from Congress, approved by Tom DeLay.

DeLay even got a chance to see the Marianas for himself. In 1997, Abramoff arranged for DeLay, along with his wife and daughter, to spend the New Year's holiday in the Marianas. The trip was expensive. A few weeks earlier, Abramoff flew out another group — the airfare alone cost nearly $76,000. Ostensibly a fact-finding mission, DeLay reportedly spent time snorkeling and golfing. Nonetheless, he clearly made an impression on his hosts.

Cameras from ABC News captured DeLay as he praised the Marianas at a party attended by top factory owners.

DELAY (ABC NEWS, APRIL 6, 2005): You represent everything that is good about what we're trying to do in America.

MICHELE MITCHELL: One of the biggest factory owners in the Marianas, Willie Tan, says DeLay told them exactly what they needed to hear. He was interviewed as part of an undercover investigation in this footage provided by the human rights group Witness.

WILLIE TAN: Do you know what Tom told me? He said, Willie, if they elect me as Majority Whip, I make the schedule of the Congress, and I'm not going to put it on the schedule.

MILLER: It's very clear that but for the Abramoff/DeLay axis and activities, we would have been able to clean up this cesspool of an industry out there in the Marianas. If somebody else has a better explanation, they ought to come forward with it really quick, and they could save everybody a lot of trouble here.

MICHELE MITCHELL: There's no question that DeLay actively opposed efforts to reform the Marianas garment industry. Did DeLay make a deal with Abramoff? Both Abramoff and DeLay deny they did anything wrong, and they refused to be interviewed for this story. But whether there was a deal or not, there are plenty of Congressional rules to prevent conflicts of interest — rules DeLay is supposed to abide by.

FRED WERTHEIMER, PRESIDENT, DEMOCRACY 21: The largest issue involved here is the issue of whether lobbyists, big campaign donors, powerful interests, can exercise special influence over our system through money.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Fred Wertheimer has spent his life tracking money in politics. Once the president of Common Cause, he now runs a group called Democracy 21.

WERTHEIMER: We cannot have a system where interests can buy decisions, can get special treatment, because of their ability to pay to play through financial favors for members of Congress-- through vacation trips for members of Congress.

MICHELE MITCHELL: That's why Congress has rules against such trips — rules Wertheimer suspects DeLay may have broken. And DeLay's trip to the Marianas is not the only one that's come to light. DeLay and his wife took other trips arranged by Jack Abramoff, to places like Scotland, Russia, and Malaysia.

In a memo uncovered by the Associated Press, Abramoff said these kinds of trips were, quote," one of the most effective ways to build permanent friends on the Hill."

But the Congressional rules are clear: Members of Congress aren't allow to accept trips paid for by lobbyists.

In this letter, obtained by NOW, Abramoff acknowledges his office paid for trips to the Marianas, and even admits that might be "improper." Other documents show Abramoff paid for a DeLay trip to London, including a stay at the swanky Four Seasons hotel. If true, that would be a clear violation of Congressional ethics rules.

These junkets raise another rule: Members of Congress aren't allowed to accept trips from groups if the purpose is recreational.

Tom DeLay is a well known golf nut. In fact, he seems to hit the links just about every time he can — here, with President Bush. In the spring of 2000, DeLay went to Scotland with Abramoff, ostensibly to meet with Scottish legislators. Part of the trip: a visit to St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf.

WERTHHEIMER: It was a ten day trip. It appears that for four of those ten days, Representative DeLay was playing golf on British Open type courses in Scotland.

MICHELE MITCHELL: And Wertheimer says investigators should look at a third rule: Members of Congress may not take trips in exchange for their votes in Congress.

Take DeLay's golfing trip to Scotland. Abramoff got an Indian tribe to pay for part of that trip. That tribe was active in gambling and opposed a bill in Congress that would have outlawed certain bets over the internet. After returning from Scotland, DeLay voted against the bill.

WERTHEIMER: Representative DeLay was one of only 43 Republicans to oppose the legislation. While 165 Republicans voted for it. Now, Representative DeLay was the House Majority Whip. And it was pretty rare for him to be voting against the majority.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Publicly, DeLay says he voted against the bill because it didn't go far enough. And as for those trips? He says he believed them to be legitimate: if lobbyists paid for them, he didn't know about it. But behind closed doors, he's gone even further.

DELAY: "…This is exactly the issue that's going on in America, that attacks against the conservative movement, against me, and against many others."

MICHELE MITCHELL: You're listening to a speech DeLay made in March of this year. It was at the height of the Terri Schiavo debate. The audience: the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group. DeLay — himself a Born Again Christian, claimed the charges against him were all part of a larger conspiracy.

DELAY: …The point is the the other side has figured out how to win and defeat the conservative movement, and this is to go after these people personally, charge them with frivolous charges, link up with all these do-gooder organizations funded by George Soros, and then get the national media on their side.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Congressman George Miller disagrees. He says the abuses in the Marianas were real, but it was "pay to play" politics that trumped human rights.

MILLER: This system of indentured workers, slavery is being defended by the same people who march around and speak about family values and moral rights and moral certitude, and they are the defenders of religious values in this country. Nothing, nothing, could be further from the truth.

MICHELE MITCHELL: But DeLay's critics aren't just Democrats. Republicans are starting to speak out too. Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut is one of them.

MITCHELL: Should the Majority Leader think about stepping down?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R-CT): I do think that Tom needs to step down. There's just a weight of this that begins to drag down the party that Tom is a leader of. And I can't be certain of it, but my instinct, my gut, tells me there'll be more because Tom is constantly pushing that ethical limit to the extreme.

MICHELE MITCHELL: It's a big deal for a Republican to speak out against DeLay. Shays is one of only two current Republican Congressmen to do so. DeLay's been know to wield a sharp stick against his perceived enemies. But he's also earned enormous loyalty, having raised millions of dollars for his Republican colleagues.

In fact, NOW has already reported on some of the fundraising activities that have landed DeLay in trouble. A judge recently ruled that a Texas political action committee founded by DeLay broke the law through the use of illegal corporate contributions.

SHAYS: Americans want to deeply believe that their leaders are honest, that they can have faith in them. And that's absolutely essential for all us to make sure it's something they can have: faith in us, believe us. And I think a lot of them don't have right at the moment.

MITCHELL: You know, supporters of Tom DeLay's would listen to you and say, well, that's easy for Congressman Shays to say that, because these two guys have never liked each other.

SHAYS: Well, that's simply not true. I've never disliked Tom. I don't dislike him now. And the one thing I know about Tom is that if I were to have a knife in me, it would be in my belly and not my back. He's always been, frankly, up front with me. I mean, it has nothing to do with what I think of him as a person. The bottom line is, we disagree on some issues.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Like, for instance, government reform.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Shays sponsored the legislation that banned the kind of large, corporate political contributions favored by DeLay. Shays also considers signing the "Contract with America" one of his proudest moments. After the Republican's historic victory in 1994, nearly all 230 Republican Congressmen gathered on the steps of the Capitol and pledged, "to end [Congress'] cycle of scandal and disgrace." Among them: Representative Tom DeLay.

SHAYS: We adopted that in 1994 because we Republicans were going to be different, because the Democrats had indicted leaders that they were allowing to still kind of function and do their job. I think it's fair to say that, you know, Democrats had been in power 40 years and it probably took them 20 years to become arrogant and it's taken us ten.

MICHELE MITCHELL: And just recently, even Newt Gingrich, the man who led the Republican revolution, told CBS News that DeLay has a lot of explaining to do.

NEWT GINGRICH (CBS News, April 13, 2005): DeLay's problem isn't with the Democrats. DeLay's problem is with the country. And so DeLay has a challenge I think, to lay out a case that country comes to believe, that the country decides is legitimate.

MICHELE MITCHELL: DeLay may soon have to do just that. The House Ethics Committee is expected to launch an investigation into DeLay's trips. But that investigation almost didn't get off the ground.

Over the last several years, the House Ethics Committee has admonished DeLay several times: once, for an improper golfing trip with lobbyists, another time, for threatening a lobbying firm, and yet another time, for improperly attempting to influence a colleague's vote. DeLay's allies tried to stop the Ethics Committee by kicking off members they regarded as unfriendly. Among those who got the boot -- Joel Hefley, a fellow Republican.

MITCHELL: Congressman Hefley called what happened in the Ethics Committee a purge.

SHAYS: Congressman Hefley was right. It was a purge. I think it was misguided and I think it was illustrious of a real need for Republicans to step back and re-examine why we are here. It just seemed so designed to really focus on one individual, and that was, frankly, our majority leader. And you don't make your ethics laws, you don't design them, to impact one particular person.

MITCHELL: And you don't want your party to be viewed as the ethically challenged party?

SHAYS: Well, clearly, we can't be the ethically challenged party. We lose our moral authority to lead when we start acting like the very thing we wanted to replace. It has an odor to it, and the odor isn't a good odor.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Facing a storm of criticism, Republican party leaders have since agreed to allow an investigation of DeLay. DeLay himself says he looks forward to the chance to clear his name. But behind the scenes, his colleagues remain deeply ambivalent over what to do about Tom DeLay.

SHAYS: I had one member of Congress come to me and say, "You know, I always thought you needed to be a team player in this business." And I said, "You do need to be a team player. But if your teammate is going out on the field drunk, you send him back to the dugout."

MICHELE MITCHELL: As for Jack Abramoff, he's now the subject of several federal investigations, his career in ruins.

ABRAMOFF: I have no choice but to assert my various Constitutional privileges against having to testify...

MICHELE MITCHELL: Abramoff made an art of bending the rules for lobbying. Now, many in Washington are wondering if, ultimately, that will bring down Tom DeLay and possibly even the Republican Party he leads.

SHAYS: I believe that if a party doesn't play by rules that our constituents believe to be fair, that they're going to ultimately say, "You've been in too long. You need to go."


BRANCACCIO: Now, in an effort to bring some balance to the news media, here's a story that should have been covered more vigorously but somehow got lost in the hurly burly this week.

It's about the Watergate man of the hour. Mark Felt, former number two at the FBI equals Deep Throat. Unless you're just in from the sensory deprivation tank, you got that already.

But there's a connection you may have missed between Mr. Throat and a clear and present question about our democracy in 2005.

Connoisseurs of investigative journalism and its shining moment identifying a cancer on the presidency are really digging the W. Mark Felt story. But there's another side of the personal narrative here that should give them pause.

In 1980, Mark Felt was convicted of allowing the FBI to secretly break into houses to help track down suspected radicals. Not just any radicals, but members of the Weather Underground who used bombing as a tactic.

Yet this is America, and Felt and his people had no court order, no warrants to authorize agents to bust into the homes of innocent people who may have been friends and family of possible terrorists. It involved what are called "black bag jobs." Felt authorized them nine times during the Watergate years at homes in New York and New Jersey.

We looked into that old case and found it instructive. One notable witness at the trial was no less than former President Richard Nixon, who argued that break-ins in the name of national security are sometimes justified. Verdict: Felt and a colleague guilty of a conspiracy to violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. The sentence, $5,000 in the case of Felt.

Despite his conviction, Felt, now age 91, has no criminal record. He was pardoned by President Reagan who used words that sound quite modern nearly a quarter century years later: Felt quote: "acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism that was threatening our nation."

The U.S. Congress and President Bush would later take that sentiment and run with it. It's called the USA Patriot Act.

Among other things, it makes it easier to get secret permission from a secret court for secret searches. The secret court, FISA, it's called, has a record of agreeing to just about every request in spying and foreign terror cases. And the results of a secret search can now be used for all sorts of criminal prosecutions.

If Mark "Deep Throat" Felt was running today's FBI it seems unlikely he ever would have needed a pardon. If he couldn't get the secret court to go along with his black bag jobs, he might have used another part of the Patriot Act to get a warrant, one that keeps searches secret — not forever — but for a good long while. Some call them "sneak and peek" and they can be granted for any kind of criminal case even if they have no foreign, spying, or terror connections.

Defenders of the Patriot Act say investigators can't be hamstrung in the fight against terror and that FBI people are, by and large, good folk who can be trusted not go over the top.

But one of the things the case of Deep Throat shows is that the FBI's ability to collect information gives those with that information colossal power. Mark Felt could expose Watergate because of 1500 FBI files to which he had access. It was power to instigate the removal of a sitting president.

It's something folks on the right and left of the political spectrum may now agree on: the need to keep a close eye on the power of the president and the people who work for him, including the FBI. Right now Congress is looking at renewing parts of the Patriot Act set to expire this year. And where is that happening? No, not a parking garage, Deep Throat-style…but like a lot of this story, key Senate hearings into the Patriot Act are currently being held in secret.


BRANCACCIO: To learn more about this we've posted some links at www.pbs.org.

Now here's what we're working on for next week…

Moving the ten commandments front and center into your lives. How will the family values campaign affect your family?

And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.


Connect to NOW, online at pbs.org

More about lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Investigate the House ethics rules

Relive Watergate online

Connect to NOW at pbs.org