A Texas prosecutor who gained the indictments of three associates of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) says that his investigation of illegal corporate campaign contributions and money laundering will continue and that "we're following the truth . . . wherever that leads."
But in an interview that will be aired tonight on CBS's "60 Minutes," Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle repeatedly skirted questions about whether DeLay might face prosecution. And during a related civil trial in Austin last week, DeLay's name repeatedly came up, but no evidence was presented that the veteran GOP leader had done anything wrong.
CBS's 12-minute segment, called "The D.A. and Tom DeLay," has been anxiously awaited by Republicans since correspondent Lesley Stahl asked DeLay questions about the investigation during a Capitol Hill news conference in January on tsunami relief.
DeLay and his GOP colleagues are trying to keep the focus on Social Security and the rest of President Bush's agenda for a second term. But DeLay has been unable to escape relentless media attention to his ethics problems and the Texas criminal and civil cases alleging wrongdoing by a political action committee he helped to create.
A Republican strategist who has worked closely with DeLay said that the legal issues have been a distraction for the majority leader's staff and something of a concern for GOP lawmakers, but that the controversies "just seem to get DeLay charged up."
"Right now, it's not a top-tier sort of thing, but more of a shake-your-head kind of thing," the strategist said. "At some point, though, members may get tired of hearing about it back in their districts."
Last September, three top political associates of DeLay were indicted in Texas by a grand jury on charges of illegally raising political funds from corporations in 2002; much of the money was funneled into the Republican takeover of the Texas legislature. Corporate contributions to state legislative candidates are illegal in Texas.
Those charged were DeLay political associate Jim Ellis, fundraiser Warren RoBold and John Colyandro, executive director of DeLay's political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC). Colyandro and Ellis were also indicted on charges of money laundering.
Earle, a Democrat who is based in Austin and a former member of the Texas House, has been ambiguous about whether DeLay is a target. DeLay and other Republicans have described the two-year investigation as a partisan vendetta.
"This is not about Democrats and Republicans," Earle told CBS during an interview at his Austin office just before Christmas. "This is about cops and robbers. This is about the abuse of power."
DeLay's problems have mounted over the past year. Last October, the House ethics committee admonished him for the third time for misconduct. Recent disclosures show that DeLay traveled overseas with Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist who is facing criminal and federal investigations for his multimillion-dollar billings to Indian tribes that wanted favors from the government. According to House records, the trips were paid for by a nonprofit group, the National Center for Public Policy Research, on whose board Abramoff sat.
But DeLay, 57, said recently in an interview that he is not worried. "All that sort of stuff that goes on doesn't sway me from my goal and my focus," he said. "It doesn't throw us off stride."
Certainly there was little said in testimony during last week's civil trial that could harm him. That case was brought against Bill Ceverha, the treasurer of TRMPAC, by five Democrats who said they lost their legislative races because the political action committee illegally raised and spent corporate campaign funds against them.
The trial opened Monday with DeLay's name front and center. But by the close of the trial on Friday, the testimony presented showed DeLay's direct role in TRMPAC's successful bid to win the Republican takeover of the Texas House was mostly that of a figurehead and a casual adviser early on.