Says Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner, whose organization was the official sponsor of the trip: "I sat by the pool while they played golf."
But who really paid for the Malaysia trip? A Heritage senior fellow who was on the trip tells TIME that it wasn't Heritage. He says that Belle Haven Consultants, a for-profit, Hong Kong-based firm linked to the Malaysian government, played a key role. "Heritage had nothing to do with it," says the senior fellow, former Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop. "Belle Haven did." It would be a violation of House ethics rules if a group other than the official sponsor paid for a trip for a member of Congress. DeLay's spokesman Dan Allen insists, "Heritage sponsored, organized and paid for the trip," and Heritage spokeswoman Khristine Bershers said documentary proof exists in storage but was not immediately available.
At the time, Mahathir was trying to mend relations with Washington, poisoned by the jailing of his deputy and rival Anwar Ibrahim, and had hired a flock of high-powered lobbyists. Among those was Jack Abramoff, who attended the dinner thrown for DeLay. Abramoff had not registered his work for Malaysia either as a foreign agent or under the lobbying disclosure rules of Congress. But sources close to the matter tell TIME that he handled the Malaysia account for Greenberg Traurig throughout that summer, and contact with members of Congress on the trip could have required him to register. Abramoff's spokesman declined to comment.
Belle Haven is now registered as acting on behalf of Malaysia, and public documents filed shortly after the DeLay trip indicate that it was controlled in part by a company created by an ally of Mahathir's.
Belle Haven's president, Ken Sheffer, is a paid consultant for Heritage, and was described by the foundation's spokesman as its "international man of mystery." Sheffer, who was also on the trip, did not return calls for comment. A Hill source tells TIME that the Senate Finance Committee is looking into the possible use of charities to end-run ethics rules.