WASHINGTON -- House Majority Leader Tom DeLay treated his political donors to a bird's-eye view of a Three Tenors concert from an arena skybox leased by a lobbyist now under criminal investigation.
DeLay's political action committee did not reimburse lobbyist Jack Abramoff for the May 2000 use of the skybox, instead treating it as a type of donation that didn't have to be disclosed to election regulators at the time.
The skybox donation, valued at thousands of dollars, came three weeks before DeLay also accepted a trip to Europe -- including golf with Abramoff at the world-famous St. Andrews course -- for himself, his wife and aides that was underwritten by some of the lobbyist's clients.
Two months after the concert and trip, DeLay voted against gambling legislation opposed by some of Abramoff's Indian tribe clients.
House ethics rules require lawmakers to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest. DeLay was admonished last summer by the ethics committee for creating an appearance of a conflict involving different donors and legislation involving energy.
His defenders say the House leader did nothing wrong in the skybox case. Federal law at the time didn't require DeLay's committee to disclose or reimburse for the skybox gift, they note -- though the law was changed to require such disclosure a few months later.
"Portraying a lack of reimbursement as news is like saying a driver of a car did not hit his brakes while driving through a green light -- there is nothing newsworthy about it, let alone improper," said Don McGahn, one of DeLay's lawyers.
DeLay's boss, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, came to a different conclusion in recent days, reimbursing Abramoff for a political event two years after the fact. One of Hastert's political committees had used a restaurant partly owned by the lobbyist, and the Hastert committee decided recently to reimburse for the use.
Abramoff's relationships with DeLay and other lawmakers are under scrutiny as a federal grand jury investigates the lobbyist's work on behalf of Indian tribes and as new information surfaces about his dealings with members of Congress.
A spokesman for Abramoff said any problems with disclosure belong with the lawmakers. "Whether these contributions were properly reported was the responsibility of the campaigns, not the tribes or Mr. Abramoff," said Andrew Blum.
Dan Allen, a DeLay spokesman, said the May 7, 2000, skybox event rewarded donors to the state arm of the DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority political committee with a special view of a performance in Washington by the Three Tenors -- opera stars José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti.
Allen said DeLay's office couldn't find records of who attended the event five years ago, including whether DeLay attended. He said that his boss shouldn't be held responsible for Abramoff's decision to underwrite the gifts or charge them to clients with business before Congress.
"How Jack Abramoff paid for or billed his clients is not something we had knowledge of or responsibility for," Allen said.
However, Larry Noble, former chief lawyer for the Federal Elections Commission, said of DeLay: "He knows who Abramoff's clients are. You don't have someone who is such a big player in Washington and has power like Tom DeLay and doesn't know where the money is coming from."
House ethics rules prohibit a lawmaker from accepting any gift of $50 or more from special interests or soliciting gifts from anyone with business before the House.
The rules do allow lawmakers to accept food, lodging and transportation to a political event when it is paid for by a political committee, like DeLay's. In this case, the skybox was paid for by a lobbyist and DeLay's committee accepted it as a contribution.
House rules prohibit lawmakers from taking "anything provided by a registered lobbyist or an agent of a foreign principal to an entity that is maintained or controlled by" a House member. DeLay was chairman of Americans for a Republican Majority PAC at the time the group accepted the skybox donation. McGahn, the DeLay lawyer, said that rule doesn't apply to contributions to political committees or campaigns, which lawmakers collect regularly from lobbyists.
Abramoff's cost of leasing the skybox at Washington's MCI Center was $3,600 or $7,500 depending on the type of lease, arena spokesman Matt Williams said.
Congressional ethics experts said one key fact in determining the appearance of a conflict of interest or an improper gift would be whether DeLay was involved in soliciting use of the skybox.
Both DeLay's office and Abramoff's spokesman declined to say if DeLay was involved, citing a lack of records or recollection.
"Mr. Abramoff leased a skybox at the MCI Center for eight years," Blum said. "Mr. Abramoff cannot be expected to and does not recall who used the box on any given day."
Jan Baran, an attorney who has represented Republicans in campaign finance and ethics cases, said he doesn't believe DeLay was obligated to pay for the skybox unless it was offered in exchange for an official act.
"I don't think there was an ethical obligation to pay somebody," Baran said.
DeLay has said he voted against the Internet gambling bill because it "clearly would have opened the door to the expansion of Internet gambling," something he said he has long opposed. He later voted in favor of a different version that omitted such provisions, he said.