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Defaming DeLay?

Houston TV stations refuse to run a liberal TV ad accusing DeLay of "corruption" after his lawyer threatens to sue. We look at the facts.

January 13, 2006

Modified: January 23, 2006

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Summary

 

Two liberal groups released an ad calling on former House Republican leader Tom DeLay to resign, but Houston TV stations pulled it off the air after a lawyer for DeLay wrote a letter calling the ad "reckless, malicious and false" and threatening to sue.

DeLay's primary complaint is that the ad refers to "one million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote." In fact, The Washington Post has reported just such an allegation. It quoted the former president of an advocacy group as saying DeLay's former chief of staff told him that Russians contributed $1 million to the group in 1998 specifically to influence DeLay's vote on legislation.

It is true there's no evidence DeLay received the money personally, but it is also true that DeLay had multiple political connections to the advocacy group, and that his wife received a salary from the group's founder.

We find that DeLay's lawyer mischaracterized what the ad said, and that the ad contains nothing that is strictly false. The worst we can say of the ad is that its ambiguous wording could give casual viewers the impression that DeLay took $1 million directly, which isn't the case.

Analysis

The ad "Resign" was released Jan. 10 by the Campaign for America's Future and the Public Campaign Action Fund, two liberal groups crusading against the influence of money in politics.  But four Houston TV stations refused to run the ad after receiving a letter  from a DeLay lawyer calling the ad's statements "actionable" and noting that broadcasters can be sued for defamation in such cases. The Houston Chronicle reported  that station KTRK refused to air the ad at all, and stations KPRC, KHOU and KRIV pulled it off the air Jan. 11. 

Campaign for America’s Future Public Campaign
Action Fund TV Ad: “Resign”

Narrator: Tom DeLay.  Indicted for criminal money laundering.
(On screen: “Indicted in election
fund scheme. – Dallas Morning News, 09/29/05”)
Narrator: Pocketed tens of thousands in campaign contributions from indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
(On screen: “Over $57,000 from Jack Abramoff, associates and clients. – Associated Press, 01/04/06”)
Narrator: Forty-eight trips to golf resorts, 100 flights aboard company jets, 200 nights at world class resorts and hotels.
(On Screen: “48 golf trips, 100 flights, 200 nights – Associated Press 12/21/05”)
Narrator: One million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote.
(On Screen: “$1,000,000 from Russians to allegedly influence his vote – Washington Post, 12/31/05”)
(On Screen: “Corruption”)
Narrator: One million dollars from Russian tycoons?
(On Screen: “Corruption Tom DeLay”)
Narrator: What else will we uncover about Tom DeLay?
(On Screen: “Tom DeLay Time to Resign from Congress”)
Narrator: It’s time for DeLay to resign.
(On Screen: "A message from Public Campaign Action Fund and Campaign for America ’s Future”)

Russian Tycoons?

And what's in the ad? While the word "corruption" is slowly spelled out on screen, an announcer notes DeLay's recent Texas indictment for money laundering, his campaign donations from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, DeLay's trips to golf resorts and "world class" hotels, and his travel by corporate jet.

Then come these lines: "One million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote. One million dollars from Russian tycoons? What else will we uncover about Tom DeLay?"

That is a reference to a Dec. 31 Washington Post story, which is cited on screen. The story did not say that the $1 million in question went to DeLay personally, or even that it is certain that the money came from Russians. However, the Post story did suggest rather strongly that the money may have come from Russian energy executives with whom DeLay had met, and who were clients of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who recently plead guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.

What DeLay's lawyer says

DeLay lawyer Donald F. McGahn sent stations a letter objecting to the ad's "Russian tycoons" reference. "This is false, and the sponsors of the ad know it is false," he said. But McGahn made some misstatements himself.

"[W]hat the Washington Post reported was that a charity called the U.S. Family Network received $1,000,000 from a now-defunct London law-firm," McGahn said.  Actually, the U.S. Family Network was not a "charity" at all. It was a nonprofit political organization that helped the illegal funding of TV ads run against several Democratic House candidates in 1999, according to the findings of an investigation by the Federal Election Commission. The FEC said  the group was founded by DeLay's former chief of staff, Edwin Buckham, who was also the group's "primary fundraiser." The FEC identified it as legally organized under section 501(c)4 of the Internal Revenue Code, which means that donations to it cannot be deducted for federal income-tax purposes. The Post also reported that Buckham received "hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees" from U.S. Family Network.

DeLay's lawyer noted that the Post story said specifically that "there is no evidence DeLay received a direct financial benefit" from the $1 million donation, which is true. But then he added that "the ad says the exact opposite of what the proffered Post article reported." That's not quite true either.

The ad's wording was ambiguous – "One million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote." The ad didn't say DeLay got the money directly, only that it "allegedly" was to influence his vote. And the Post did in fact state just such an allegation.

What the Washington Post said

The Post story quoted a former president of the U.S. Family Network as saying that he was told the $1-million donation originated with Russians and was "specifically to influence DeLay's vote on legislation."

The story quotes Christopher Geeslin, identified as the group's former president and director, as saying that he heard the payment was meant to influence DeLay's vote on International Monetary Fund aid to Russia. According to the Post , Geeslin said the person who told him this was Buckham, the former DeLay chief staffer who was the organization's founder and chief fundraiser. "Ed told me, 'This is the way things work in Washington,' " Geeslin told the Post . "He said the Russians wanted to give the money first in cash." Instead, a $1-million check arrived June 25, 1998 from a London law firm that dissolved two years later. The firm's former partners would not tell the Post where the money originated, and Buckham wouldn't comment.

The Post also reported that the money came nine months after DeLay took a trip to Moscow, where he was the dinner guest of Marina Nevskaya and Alexander Koulakovsky of the oil firm Naftasib. Also at the dinner were Abramoff and Buckham, the Post reported. The Post said the Russians denied via email that they were the source of the money.

The Post did go out of its way to note that "there is no evidence DeLay received a direct financial benefit" from the $1-million donation, whoever might have given it. But it is also true that DeLay's wife Christine received $115,000 in salary over four years from Buckham's lobbying firm, according to what DeLay lawyer Richard Cullen has told several news organizations. And the Post reported that Buckham was receiving big fees from the U.S. Family Network while employing Mrs. DeLay.

Whether DeLay received any personal financial benefit or not, a donation to U.S. Family Network probably would have pleased him. DeLay wrote a fundraising letter for the group when Buckham launched it, the Post reported. And in 1999 the group funneled money Buckham had demanded from the National Republican Congressional Committee to finance ads accusing several Democratic candidates of using Social Security funds for "foreign aid and big government programs," echoing a line of attack approved by House leaders. (The funding method was illegal. The FEC in 2004 fined the Republican committee $280,000 for this episode.)

The Post's  3,216-word story is a bit much to summarize in the eleven words the ad devotes to it. Those words – "One million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote" – could certainly give viewers the impression that DeLay is being accused of worse things than the Post actually reported. But the words are hardly "the opposite" of the Post's reporting, as DeLay's lawyer claimed.

Other Objections

DeLay's lawyer also complained another portion of the ad was "false." That's not so, but we agree the wording is ambiguous and could lead some to a wrong conclusion.

Same Ad Re-worded:
"Out of Sight"

Narrator: Here’s the ad Tom Delay does not want you to see.
(On screen: “Tom DeLay” against a snowy TV screen”)
Narrator: And what does Tom Delay not want you to know?   That he received tens of thousands in campaign contributions from indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates.
(On screen: “… received at least $57,000 in political contributions from Abramoff, his lobbying associates, or his tribal clients between 2001-2004. – Associated Press, 01/03/06”)
Narrator: That he took trips all over the world at his donors' expense.
(On Screen: “He visited cliff-top Caribbean  resorts, golf courses designed by PGA champions and four star restaurants – all courtesy of donors who bankrolled his political money empire. – Associated Press 12/20/05”)
Narrator: That a group related to Delay received one million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote.
(On Screen: “Russians contributed $1 million to the group in 1998 specifically to influence Delay’s vote on legislation … – Washington Post, 12/31/05”)
(On Screen: “Corruption”)
Narrator: That’s what Tom DeLay doesn’t want you to know.  Is there more?

(On Screen: A picture of DeLay with the words “Tom DeLay Time to Resign” superimposed over it)
Narrator: It’s time for DeLay to resign.

The ad says DeLay "pocketed tens of thousands in campaign contributions from indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff," citing an AP story from last week. That's true: working from public records, The AP tallied $57,000 "from Abramoff, his lobbying associates or his tribal clients between 2001 and 2004." DeLay's attorney doesn't dispute this.

What DeLay's lawyer objects to is the next line: "Forty-eight trips to golf resorts, 100 flights aboard company jets, 200 nights at world class resorts and hotels," citing on screen another AP story  from December. DeLay's lawyer says: "This is false—the cited Associated Press account does not report that Abramoff provided these trips and flights.  . . . Once again, instead of producing an ad that accurately conveys what has been reported, the sponsors of the ad have produced an ad that states what they wish the facts to be."

Actually, the ad said nothing about who provided DeLay's trips, only that he received them. The AP story is accurately quoted, and not disputed. 

We agree that because Abramoff is named in the ad's previous sentence, a careless viewer could be misled. The ad might have avoided this by saying "others provided" the trips, golf and hotel stays. But strictly speaking the statement isn't false as written.

 

Update Jan. 23: The ad's sponsors re-worded the ad, re-named it "Out of Sight," and announced on Jan. 21 that Houston TV stations were running the new version. The new ad refers to "what Tom DeLay doesn't want you to know." (See full text at left).

The changes remove  the ambiguity we found in the original and address some of the objections raised by DeLay's attorney. While the ad still retains the allegation that the $1 million was given "specifically to influence DeLay's vote on legislation," it also makes clear that the money went to "a group related to DeLay" and not to DeLay personally.

In other changes, the new ad makes clear that DeLay got $57,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff "and his associates," not just from Abramoff. It also drops the word "pocketed," removing any inference that DeLay used the political donations for personal expenses. The ad now refers to "trips all over the world at his donors' expense," removing any implication that Abramoff paid for them all. The graphics in the ad also give more complete quotations from the newspaper articles that are cited.As of January 22 KPRC and KRIV in Houston began running the ad and on January 23 KHOU also agreed to run the revised ad.

 

-by Brooks Jackson

Sources

 

R. Jeffrey Smith, "The  DeLay-Abramoff Money Trail : Nonprofit Group Linked to Lawmaker Was Funded Mostly by Clients of Lobbyist," The Washington Post 31 Dec 2005: A1.

Mark Sherman, " Abramoff Makes Plea Deal , Will Cooperate," The Associated Press, 3 Jan 2005.

Larry Margasak and Sharon Theimer, " DeLay lived in the lap of luxury , thanks to donors:
Congressman visited classy resorts, fine restaurants," The Associated Press, 21 Dec 2005.