Monday, February 28, 2005

Tom Delay Rips Off Elderly To Fund Overseas Trip

By John Byrne and Larisa Alexandrovna | RAW STORY Staff

A think tank which raised money by targeting elderly Americans with Social Security scare letters paid for more than $130,000 in travel expenses for the House Republican leader, his wife and his staff, RAW STORY has learned.

The National Center for Public Policy Research, a highly controversial and little-known conservative think tank which has been sending Social Security “fright mail” for years, paid for two posh trips for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) in 1996 and 2000, each at the cost of at least $64,000.

NCPPR also gave $1,000 to DeLay’s legal defense fund in 2004.

While another conservative group stole the limelight for an ad linking the AARP to gay marriage, NCPPR has operated below the radar on controversial issues since its founding in the early 1980s.

The group’s letters target seniors of both parties, aiming to convince them their Social Security benefits are in jeopardy and thereby induce them to donate money. The mailings also encourage seniors to keep the mailing secret from others, perhaps even from family members.

“Inside your sealed envelope is information regarding the potential collapse of the Social Security system – and how it can endanger you and the entire United States senior citizen population,” NCPPR president Amy Ridenour writes in one such letter obtained by RAW STORY (Read the letter here). “It is also critical that you share this pertinent information ONLY [sic] with other trustworthy individuals.”

“Should we put most of our time and effort into fighting to prevent liberal big-spenders from draining an estimated $100 billion from the trust fund?” Ridenour asks. “Or should I go head to head against the left-wing’s reckless use of $70 billion tax surplus when they promised to put our Social Security first?”

“The liberal monster is primed to rip your Social Security to shreds,” reads another hyperbolic letter reported on by the San Francisco Examiner in 1998.

The group uses at least four different letterheads to solicit money; all of the money is funneled into the same organization.

In January, RAW STORY asked NCPPR Executive Director David Almasi why there was only one reference to one of the letterhead “task forces” on the NCPPR website, nor any description of how money is spent.

“We [don’t] currently have Internet access at our office,” Almasi said.

Almasi couldn’t say how much the mailings had collected or how many individuals had donated. Ridenour didn’t return calls seeking comment.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay enjoyed the generosity of the group at least twice. The group paid for a $64,064 trip for himself and his staff to Moscow and St. Petersburg when he was Majority Whip in the summer of 1997.

NCPPR also picked up a hefty $70,000 tab for trip for DeLay and his aides made in mid-2000 to Europe. DeLay and his staff took a junket where he met with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and took a round of golf with conservative leaders in Scotland.

The ten-day “educational” trip was no small affair–NCPPR paid $28,106 for DeLay and his wife alone, splurging on transportation ($20,266.00), cushy lodging ($3,840.00) and meals ($4,000.00).

DeLay’s office did not return RAW STORY calls seeking comment today.

On Saturday, the National Journal reported that DeLay may have violated House ethics rules when a top lobbyist shelled out an additional $13,000 for DeLay’s stay at the London Four Seasons hotel during that same trip. House rules stipulate that members or members’ employees cannot accept payment from a registered lobbyist to cover travel costs.

The lobbyist in question? Jack Abramoff, an NCPPR director. Abramoff is also on the board of USA Next—a pro-privatization Social Security group that formed as an offshoot of the Swift Boat Vets and recently ran an ad claiming AARP supported gay marriage.

Since then, Abramoff’s fortunes have soured. Abramoff is under investigation for several lobbying scandals and is involved in ongoing litigation with federal authorities over casino deals. He has since resigned his post at NCPPR.

Abramoff and DeLay have a long relationship on Capitol Hill. DeLay’s former press secretary Michael Scalon joined Abramoff’s firm six years ago and allegedly traded on DeLay’s name to rake in $45 million between them from four American Indian tribes—in a year when General Motors spent just $30 million.

“To the casual observer, it was a pretty simple deal,” one former GOP House leadership aide told the National Journal Saturday. “Jack raised money for the pet projects of DeLay and took care of his top staff. In turn, they granted him tremendous access and allowed him to freely trade on DeLay’s name.”

The ex-NCPPR director is a major conservative donor: in the 2004 election cycle, Abramoff and his wife contributed $83,000 to Republicans. The power couple ranked as the 93rd largest donor to either party that year.

Abramoff was also a Bush “Pioneer;” he raised more than $100,000 for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

More salient, perhaps, are Abramoff’s contributions to DeLay. In the last eight years Abramoff and his wife have personally donated $40,000 to DeLay’s campaigns and political action committee. At least two of Abramoff’s American Indian tribe clients also donated $38,000 to DeLay’s PAC.

In 2000, Abramoff “dryly” told conservative columnist Don Feder, “Money available from government is blood in the water for sharks.”

DeLay has no formal role in the group, though he has showered it with praises. NCPPR’s “About Us” page bears a quote from DeLay at the top left of the page, “The National Center is THE CENTER [sic] for conservative communications.”

NCCPR is unapologetic about its mailings.

“We assume most people are capable of taking care of themselves, and if there is something they have a desire about, they will let us know,” NCPPR president Ridenour told the San Francisco Examiner.

In 1998, The Examiner profiled an 86-year-old Oakland resident Faye Shelby who had been deluged by direct mail scams seeking money on issues including Social Security. The letters so distressed the nursing home resident that she lay awake at night worrying about what crisis most deserved her help.

“I didn’t know that I could just turn them down,” Shelby told the Examiner. “I was thinking it was something I had to do. . . . I thought if I didn’t correspond about Social Security, I wouldn’t get my checks.”

NCPPR has also been hit for other questionable practices.

In the 1990s, the group began to focus on denying climate change after they began received tens of thousands of dollars from ExxonMobil. They also launched a crusade on behalf of tobacco interests after taking money from Phillip Morris.

NCPPR also saw an awkward moment last year when one of the members

of the group’s conservative African American branch Project 21 failed to show up for a C-SPAN interview. Executive Director David Almasi, who is the only paid staff member for Project 21 and is white, filled in. From there, one editor went on to expose the group as a whole, finding that not a single director or board member of the group was black.

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