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1997 DeLay trip to Russia questioned

Reportedly sponsored by business interests

WASHINGTON -- A six-day trip to Moscow in 1997 by then-House majority whip Tom DeLay was underwritten by business interests lobbying in support of the Russian government, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the trip arrangements.

DeLay reported that the trip was sponsored by a Washington-based nonprofit organization. But interviews with those involved in planning DeLay's trip say the expenses were covered by a mysterious company registered in the Bahamas that also paid for an intensive $440,000 lobbying campaign.

It is unclear precisely how the money was transferred from the Bahamian-registered company to the nonprofit.

In a separate development, The New York Times reported today that DeLay's wife and daughter were paid more than $500,000 since 2001 by his political action and campaign committees, according to disclosure statements filed with the Federal Election Commission and Texas fund-raising records. Aides said the women played major roles in DeLay's political career.

The expense-paid trip to Moscow by DeLay and four of his staff members cost $57,238, according to records filed by his office. During his six days in Moscow, he played golf, met with Russian church leaders, and talked to prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a friend of Russian oil and gas executives associated with the lobbying effort.

DeLay also dined with the Russian executives and two Washington-based registered lobbyists for the Bahamian-registered company, sources say. One of those lobbyists was Jack Abramoff, who is now at the center of a federal influence-peddling and corruption probe related to his representation of Indian tribes.

House members bear some responsibility to ensure that the sponsors for their travel are not masquerading for registered lobbyists or foreign government interests, legal specialists say. House ethics rules bar the acceptance of travel reimbursement from lobbyists and foreign agents.

In this case, travel funds did not come directly from lobbyists; the money came from a firm, Chelsea Commercial Enterprises Ltd., that funded the lobbying campaign, according to the sources. Chelsea was coordinating the effort with a Russian oil and gas company that has business ties with Russian security institutions, the sources said.

Aides to DeLay, who is now the House majority leader, said that despite the presence during the trip of the two registered lobbyists, DeLay thought the nonprofit organization -- the National Center for Public Policy Research -- was funding the trip on its own.

''The trip was initiated by the National Center," spokesman Dan Allen said, ''and they were the ones who organized it, planned it and paid for it."

The 1997 Moscow trip is the third foreign trip by DeLay to be scrutinized in recent weeks because of new statements by those involved that his travel was directly or indirectly financed by registered lobbyists or a foreign agent.

Media attention focused on DeLay's travel last month after The Washington Post reported on DeLay's participation in a $70,000 expense-paid trip to London and Scotland in 2000 that sources said was indirectly financed in part by an Indian tribe and a gambling services company.

DeLay on March 18 portrayed criticism of his trips and close ties to lobbyists as the product of a conspiracy to ''destroy the conservative movement" by attacking its leaders, such as himself.

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