Saturday, May 24, 2003

More trouble for DeLay
Joshua Marshall reports that that Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta has started an internal review to see if rules were broken when Tom DeLay contacted the Federal Aviation Administration for help tracking down former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney and the Killer D's. DeLay's story of his involvement in the locating the Killer D's has gone through several revisions now. It has been necessary for him to make these revisions because his earlier stories contained what are technically referred to as "weasel-like evasions and bald-faced lies".

DeLay's original story was that he merely passed "along to the Justice Department [Texas House Speaker] Craddick's inquiry on whether federal law enforcement could assist in the manhunt." He specifically denied any contact between his office and Homeland Security or the FBI, but conveniently failed to mention pulling strings in any other federal agencies. Craddick is claiming amnesia for that day.

On Wednesday, Mineta was notified that DeLay had used the FAA to get information on the whereabouts of Laney's plane. Thursday DeLay revealed that he had used the FAA to track down Laney's private plane. This was his first admission to having any direct involvement in the hunt for the D's. On Friday Mineta ordered an internal investigation of the FAA to see if any rules were broken. The timing makes it clear that DeLay knew of the impending investigation and rushed to disarm the situation by getting his version out first.

Was Mineta the one who warned DeLay and gave him a full day headstart with the press? If so DeLay didn't use it very well. In his Tursday statement DeLay said he used "publicly available flight information that any member of Congress gets from FAA, or you can get it off the Internet." The FAA spokesman, Bill Shumann, explained that the public does not have access to flight tracking data; information generated by air traffic control centers is bundled and used by commercial companies. Some of them make the data available online. On Friday, DeLay had to issue a correction explaining that when he said "publicly available" he didn't mean it was available to the public.

If DeLay, as a Congressman, was allowed access to information and service that is not provided to other members of the public he was misusing his office. It's that simple.

The Department of Transportation review is not the only investigation into abuses of authority that may have occurred during the search for the Killer D's. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge may launch a criminal investigation into the Texas Department of Public Safety's use of DHS anti-terrorism surveillance facilities to locate Laney's plane. A grand jury in Travis County and the Texas House General Investigating Committee are both investigating whether the DPS broke state laws searching for the Democrats and in destroying records and photos from the search. Texas Democrats have received a restraining order to stop DPS from destroying any remaining records.

It might seem odd that I'm so caught up in this story. I'm not Texan, I've never even been to Texas, and I usually only have bad things to say about things Texan (except Molly Ivins, Austin City Limits, and, lately, the Dixie Chicks). Two things keep me interested. One, it's the most enjoyable political theater we've had in a long time. It's nice to approach the news again in cheerful expectation, rather than dread. Second, and the source of some of that cheer, is that I'm hoping this will turn into a first-rate scandal. There's more to this than mere schadenfreude from a yellow-dog Democrat (although, can anything as intimidatingly named as schadenfreude ever be "mere"?).

I mentioned earlier the potential for a good scandal to damage Bush’s reelection chances. This is not that scandal, but it is the next best thing. This scandal highlights the hubris and bullying of the right in power. DeLay tried to institutionalize a temporary advantage through his redistricting. While that in itself is not a crime, it is a grotesque violation of the accepted norms of the political game. This behavior is not limited to DeLay or the Republicans in the Texas legislature. Look at some of the ways the Republicans have tried to change the rules to their favor. After thirty years of accepting Democratic defectors, the loss of Jim Jeffords led some Republicans to try and outlaw changing parties between elections. After eight years of using filibuster and parliamentary maneuvers to block Clinton’s judicial nominees and legislation, they suddenly want to disarm the rules of filibuster so a narrow majority will always eventually get its way. The White House has nominated an unusually large number of strident reactionaries to the highest benches so their revolution will continue long after they are out of office. And, of course, Texas isn’t the only state where newly ascendant Republicans are redistricting out of turn to increase their advantage.

Not only does this scandal need to be made very noisy and public, it needs to be portrayed as representative of the bad behavior of the radicalized Republican Party in general. DeLay isn’t one Republican running amok; he is a typical Republican who happened to get caught. So far, the national press is doing a terrible job of covering the story (if only we could find a Laci Peterson or American Idol angle). The Texas press, however, is doing a great job in following it. They’re keeping the story alive and adding new and bigger revelations every day. We, in Left Blogistan, need to keep the story alive outside Texas. By all rights, this should become much bigger than Trent Lott.

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