When telemarketers take advantage of consumers, Congress is often the first to cry foul. But what if the telemarketer is himself a politician? NBC News obtained never-before-heard tapes from a controversial fund-raising effort by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — tapes that some critics claim are a congressional bait-and-switch.
Air Force chaplain James Helton says he was flabbergasted when he first heard the news from his wife. “She told me you’ve been selected for a national award by Congressman DeLay, and they really want you to call the office.”
Helton wondered why a powerful Republican leader would want to honor a humble Air Force reservist and quickly returned the call. He was so upset by what he heard that he invited NBC News to record the conversation when he called back a second time.
First there was a recorded message: “This is Congressman Tom DeLay. I’m asking you to serve as an honorary chairman on our business advisory council, and you will be recognized with our national leadership award.”
Then, a telemarketer came on the line: “You’d be invited to private dinners with congressmen and quarterly strategy sessions in Washington.”
In the call, Helton was also promised an exclusive black-tie president’s dinner and his name in a newspaper ad.
REQUEST FOR A GIFT
Then came the pitch from the telemarketer: “We’re asking each chairman for a one-time gift of $300 or $500 for the ad. Can we count on your support?”
Helton replied: “That’s pushing my budget a little. Does it have to be paid all at once?”
“Would $100 or $200 be any better for you? And I could even split that down into two payments as well,” replied the telemarketer.
Helton, an independent voter who voted for Bush in the last presidential election, did not send a dime. “It was dishonest, it was sleazy, and it was certainly unbecoming a national party like this,” said Helton.
NBC News played the tape for Fred Werthheimer, a frequent critic of fund-raising practices of both parties: “I’ll tell you what your qualification is for getting an award: that they have your telephone number and can reach you by phone.”
OTHER AWARD WINNERS
Past awardees include a convicted sex offender and a maker of drug paraphernalia — both awards were later rescinded.
The award also is proudly displayed in the office of an adult film promoter, Harry Weiss, who sent Republicans a check from his company — “Nefarious Films.”
“They cashed the check, so I guess they’re happy to have me aboard,” Weiss said.
DeLay and the National Republican Congressional Committee declined an on-camera interview. The committee says these calls are entirely proper and that there are thousands of happy award recipients around the country. But critics say the only thing recipients won was a chance to give money to Republicans.
Lisa Myers is NBC News’ Senior investigative correspondent, based in Washington, D.C.