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Democrats Target GOP's DeLay in Suit That Calls His Fund-Raising Extortion


WASHINGTON — For the first time in years, House Democrats are running their reelection campaigns without the help of Newt Gingrich, the sharp-edged partisan Republican whose provocative conservative views galvanized their political base.

But as the fight for control of the House heats up, Democrats are increasingly turning their fire on the man who has succeeded Gingrich as the Republican they most love to hate, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas.

On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit in federal District Court accusing DeLay, the House majority whip, of setting up a complex fund-raising network that amounts to extortion and money laundering.

Committee officials said the suit represents a serious legal effort to dry up an important and growing source of campaign financing for GOP House candidates that they say is escaping federal regulation and public scrutiny.

"This is not gamesmanship," said Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), chairman of the Democratic panel. "This is a serious complaint. We want this thing to stop."

Although legal experts said prospects for the case are uncertain, the filing underscores the growing importance of DeLay, a onetime owner of a Houston pest control business who was first elected to the House in 1984. As majority whip, he is responsible for making sure votes are lined up for the GOP legislative agenda. But he also has emerged as a major fund-raiser and spokesman for the party's conservative wing.

Gingrich had starred in those roles when Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 and he became speaker. When Gingrich resigned his House seat after the GOP's poor showing in the 1998 elections, no single Republican could replace him as a national celebrity. But as much as any party leader, DeLay stepped into the breach. In the process, Democrats have come to see him as particularly vulnerable to accusations of extremism.

DeLay, 53, does his part to fuel that perception. During the House impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, he took the lead in squelching any talk of a lesser punishment. Even now, as many other Republicans seek to soften the party's hard edges, DeLay pulls no punches.

The day after the federal government's raid to remove Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives, DeLay appeared on national television to denounce the seizure as the work of "jackbooted thugs."

His fund-raising prowess and a reputation for ruthlessness in seeking contributions have also become near-legendary. That forms the backdrop of the Democratic civil suit under federal anti-racketeering law. The Democrats contend that DeLay's fund-raising amounts to extortion because he allegedly has intimidated contributors by threatening "unfavorable action on legislation" if they fail to give.

The suit cites media reports that DeLay maintained a list of political action committees, rated them according to whether they contributed more to Democrats or Republicans and asked PAC representatives to review and initial their ratings when visiting his office.

The suit argues that DeLay has laundered contributions by channeling them through three nonprofit organizations run by close associates of his--organizations that promote conservative causes but are not required to disclose the source and use of their donations.

A year ago, the Democratic campaign committee asked the Justice Department to review some of the allegations. The department referred them to the Federal Election Commission, which has taken no action.

Emily Miller, DeLay's press secretary, said that the lawsuit is "an attempt to personally intimidate [DeLay] and to curtail the free speech and legal activities of conservative groups."

James Bopp Jr., the attorney representing the three nonprofit groups named in the suit, said that it amounts to "trying to make everyday political practices unlawful."

But Kennedy argued that DeLay's political activities go far beyond what other politicians do in soliciting contributions and working with like-minded outside organizations.

"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 in order to make it possible," Kennedy said.

Kenneth Gross, a former FEC official with no role in the dispute, said that the case seemed unlikely to go far. "It sounds like a stretch to me," said Gross. "DeLay has engaged in aggressive fund-raising, but whether it crosses any racketeering standard is doubtful."

Still, he said, Democrats could score political points if they can push the case far enough to gain access to fund-raising documents--in effect, forcing the disclosure of contributors now kept secret.

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