- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

It has been clear for some time that House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt has wanted to be speaker so badly that he was willing to do almost anything. One sign is last week's lawsuit filed by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Mr. Gephardt's handpicked chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), against House Republican whip Tom DeLay?

Audaciously filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which was intended to be used against organized crime, Mr. Kennedy's lawsuit accused Mr. DeLay of racketeering, extortion and money laundering in his fund-raising activities for Republican candidates and causes. However, the fact of the matter is that Mr. DeLay has merely borrowed a page from the campaign playbook of the Democratic Party, which has benefited for several years from comparable fund-raising and political strategies practiced by liberal interest groups. Asked at the National Press Club the day after the lawsuit was filed if he had ever asked for political contributions in exchange for legislative favors, Mr. DeLay replied, "Absolutely not. I'm not stupid."

The context of the lawsuit relates to the recent proliferation of so-called Section 527 organizations. Identified by the provision in the IRS code under which such interest groups are classified for tax purposes, these political organizations are permitted to raise and spend unlimited sums of publicly undisclosed donations as long as they do not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. Three of the co-defendants in the lawsuit are Section 527 groups whose fund-raising operations Mr. DeLay has helped. As it happens, the Sierra Club was perhaps the first such group to form a Section 527 organization, which spent $4 million on issue ads during the 1996 congressional elections. The Sierra Club, which was active during the 2000 presidential primaries, intends to spend as much as $7 million during this fall's congressional elections. The League of Conservation Voters established its 527 organization in 1997. Guess whose candidates these groups have supported with funds donated by undisclosed individuals and groups? Hardly the Republicans. Clearly Mr. DeLay has been a bit behind the curve for this strategy.

The real intent of this fraudulent lawsuit is to prevent conservatives from playing by the rules that were established by liberal interest groups years ago; scaring away potential Republicans donors; and perhaps even giving Democrats a counterargument the next time the subject of Clinton-Gore fund-raising abuses comes up.

In announcing the lawsuit, Mr. Kennedy charged that Mr. DeLay "seeks through the use of systematic extortion to coerce the contribution of millions of dollars to Republicans and to intimidate those inclined to support Democrats." This is ludicrous. If Mr. Kennedy wants evidence of political extortion and intimidation he offered nothing but newspaper clippings when he filed his RICO lawsuit he need look no further than the actions of Tony Coelho, one of his predecessors as DCCC chairman, who now serves as campaign chairman for Vice President Al Gore. Before leaving the House under an ethics cloud, Mr. Coelho served as his party's premier shakedown artist.

Here is how the Democrats played the fund-raising game when they enjoyed majority status. In a letter to the chief lobbyist of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), whose political action committee, according to author Brooks Jackson, was supporting a Republican, Mr. Coelho issued an explicit threat in demanding "the maximum financial contribution" of $5,000 to be donated to the Democratic incumbent. "The NAHB has had a good relationship with the Democrats in the House," Mr. Coelho et al. wrote, "and we would like to see that relationship continue and grow. Your action in this race causes us to be concerned that the relationship will be damaged." Besides Mr. Coelho, the letter was signed by House Speaker Tip O Neill, Majority Leader Jim Wright, Banking Committee Chairman Fernand St. Germain and Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski.

Compared to this crowd Messrs. Wright, St. Germain and Rostenkowski joined Mr. Coelho in leaving Congress in ethical disgrace Mr. DeLay is a real soft touch.

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