- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, led by Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, yesterday filed a lawsuit against House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, accusing him of racketeering and extortion in his Republican fund-raising activities.

The committee accused Mr. DeLay of peddling political influence in exchange for donations and establishing tax-exempt groups to "launder" soft money from unidentified sources. The suit also names three of those groups as defendants.

Some named in the lawsuit called the case a frivolous attack on political speech.

"The essence of their complaint is that Tom DeLay helped raise money for outside groups … which support issues that he supports," said James Bopp Jr., attorney for the Republican Majority Issues Committee and the U.S. Family Network, two of the three outside groups also named in the lawsuit.

The civil action, which was announced at a news conference by the Democratic panel's chairman, Mr. Kennedy of Rhode Island, claims that Mr. DeLay helped establish the three tax-exempt groups in order to hide the source of contributions.

The lawsuit seeks a judge's order to stop the groups' activities and win unspecified financial damages.

"This has been a consistent, flagrant and continuous effort by Mr. DeLay to retain control of the House of Representatives," Mr. Kennedy said. "For the first time, we are seeing the development of a completely shadow political organization."

The lawsuit's racketeering complaint claims that Mr. DeLay helped form three tax-exempt groups, which both he and those groups deny.

The suit also charges that Mr. DeLay extorted campaign funds by making threats against some groups to withhold favorable action on legislation unless a donation was made.

Mr. DeLay's press secretary, Emily Miller, said the Democrats have made previous efforts to disrupt his actions, only to be stymied by both the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission.

She noted that several top Democratic Party contributors, notably the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO, have used similar techniques to keep their donors private.

"Now conservatives are catching up, and it's threatening to Democrats," Miss Miller said. "I don't think anyone in their right mind would believe that this lawsuit has any validity. It has no criminal charges because no laws have been broken. It's a last-ditch attempt to make Tom DeLay the new Newt Gingrich."

The three tax-exempt defendants, which also include Americans for Economic Growth, are accused in the suit of accepting donations intended for the Republican Party and "falsely asserting that they are not 'political committees' " to evade donation-reporting requirements.

Contributions to political parties, known as soft money, are generally subject to public disclosure. But some tax-exempt groups that do not have to name their donors can accept money from individuals, then pass them along to parties as soft-money contributions.

The lawsuit relied on newspaper accounts of Mr. DeLay's fund raising, said Bob Bauer, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. He said that no one has been interviewed or investigated yet.

"We have enough basis here," Mr. Bauer said at the news conference. "Over time, people have become aware and Mr. DeLay has been less than subtle" in his fund-raising activities.

"These facts have been put before us on a silver platter … shined by Mr. DeLay."

Mr. DeLay is scheduled to give a speech today at the National Press Club on cultural renewal.

Karl Gallant, chairman of Republican Majority Issues Committee, said in a statement that the "consequences of this frivolous abuse of the legal system could be devastating to the viability of the First Amendment."

He pointed out that the Sierra Club has been performing the same function using private money for political donations for the Democratic Party since 1996. That group is projected to spend up to $5 million on issue ads in 20 House districts this year.

Mr. Bopp, the attorney for two of the defendant groups, added: "Politicians do this all the time. What they are saying is a crime is the same thing liberal groups do. What they are trying to do is criminalize lawful First Amendment activity."

Democrats filed a complaint in December about several groups linked to Mr. DeLay including Americans for Economic Growth and the U.S. Family Network with the Federal Election Commission after learning that the National Republican Congressional Committee gave the U.S. Family Network $500,000.

No action has been taken on that complaint.

The lawsuit was filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which is a law used to break up organized crime and drug cartels. The statute grew out of a 1967 investigation of organized crime.

Since then, it has also been used by and against businesses and political groups such as pro-life demonstrators.

Mr. Kennedy's uncle, Robert F. Kennedy, raised concerns about the First Amendment implication of the original statute in 1968.

At that time, Mr. Kennedy feared it would be used by the Nixon administration to crack down on Vietnam War protesters. The statute was amended before becoming law in 1970.

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