Sunday, April 02, 2006

Political Operator Tony Rudy Helped DeLay's Ascent
A Force Behind the Power
Political Operator Tony Rudy Helped DeLay's Ascent
By Juliet Eilperin and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers

When Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was working his way up the leadership ladder in the 1990s, he often turned to an athletic assistant named Tony C. Rudy.

Rudy, now 39, was known as a bare-knuckle political operator who was trusted explicitly by his ambitious boss. They were an odd combination -- the folksy Houston lawmaker and his aide, a New Jersey native who graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But it worked. With Rudy's help, DeLay rose to the No. 2 position in the House Republican leadership.

Then, according to friends and co-workers, Rudy got involved with a lobbyist named Jack Abramoff, and a darker side to the young aide emerged. According to a former House Republican aide who knew Rudy well, "He became part of a culture of chumminess with people downtown. That was unfortunate."

When Abramoff called the DeLay office, Rudy was his main contact, and Rudy secretly became the recipient of payments from the lobbyist and other largess. When he left Capitol Hill to become a lobbyist, Rudy joined Abramoff as his right-hand man and dispensed the same kinds of gifts to his former colleagues. That combination led to Rudy's guilty plea yesterday on charges of conspiracy.

One GOP lobbyist who worked with DeLay's office and asked not to be identified said Rudy represented DeLay's "harder edge."

"It was always push, push, push, pressure, pressure, pressure," the lobbyist said. "He was someone who was very aggressive and on the edge, who had Tom's complete trust."

But Rudy was also a popular figure on Capitol Hill, who during his free time was mistaken for an undergrad while playing on a local college's intramural hockey team.

"He's a good guy," said Edward Kutler, a senior Republican lobbyist and former House aide. "I always found him to be knowledgeable and straightforward. He had a good sense of what motivated members. I didn't see him as a flashy guy. I was surprised and people who worked more closely with him than I do were surprised" by the guilty plea, Kutler said.

Unlike Michael Scanlon, another former DeLay aide who has pleaded guilty as part of the Abramoff probe, Rudy did not engage in high-priced real estate deals.

Rudy did enjoy some perks that came with being a senior leadership staffer, including eating elaborate sushi meals at Abramoff's expense and smoking high-quality cigars.

As first reported in the Wall Street Journal, Rudy made nearly 500 stock trades from his Capitol Hill computer in 1999 and 2000 and profited handsomely from the day trading.

According to a document filed in court yesterday, Rudy admitted accepting gifts from Abramoff and his associates, including $86,000 in payments to his wife's firm, Liberty Consulting, as well as "tickets to sporting events, meals, golf and golf trips."

The document continues: "During the same period, defendant RUDY routinely performed official acts for or at the behest of Abramoff and others, which were motivated in part by the things of value he received."

Rudy made his mark by wooing Republicans and fighting Democrats. Although he started out as DeLay's press secretary in 1995, he rose to become deputy chief of staff within three years. Rudy left the Hill to become a lobbyist in December 2000.

While a DeLay aide, Rudy oversaw his office's "member maintenance" operation, an elaborate concierge service that ensured GOP lawmakers had such luxuries as private cars and meals during late-night votes. Just before the 2000 Republican National Convention, he told a Washington Post reporter that it made perfect sense to shuttle lawmakers to a five-car hospitality train from Philadelphia's First Union Center. "The whole purpose of this is to treat members of Congress as kings and queens," he said.

One Republican close to DeLay's operation who asked not to be identified called Rudy "the implementer," a practical, no-nonsense aide who made sure the Texas Republican's political vision became reality.

Rudy became one of the best sources of information on the Hill, talking to lobbyists and journalists alike, and he used this power to advance causes close to DeLay's heart.

During the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, according to Peter Baker's book "The Breach," Rudy and a few others conducted an informal survey of the House Republican Conference and discovered its members were just three votes shy of impeaching the president. That unofficial count helped to persuade DeLay to squelch an effort by moderates to censure rather than impeach Clinton, a short-term conservative victory that some Republicans later blamed for their 1998 election losses.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a member of the Judiciary Committee who opposed Clinton's impeachment, said yesterday that Rudy's guilty plea shows "the hypocrisy" of Republicans who were eager to take down a Democratic president.

"The notion that these people were acting so indignant about Bill Clinton's sexual activities while they were preparing to loot is just despicable," Frank said, adding that while DeLay has not been implicated in Rudy's plea, he helped put the aide in contact with Abramoff.

"How did Abramoff and Rudy meet, through JDate? No, they met through DeLay," Frank said.

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.