DeLay Indicted in Texas Finance Probe
Thursday, September 29, 2005
A Texas grand jury indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) yesterday on a charge of criminally conspiring with two political associates to inject illegal corporate contributions into 2002 state elections that helped the Republican Party reorder the congressional map in Texas and cement its control of the House in Washington.
The indictment forced DeLay, one of the Republicans' most powerful leaders and fundraisers, to step aside under House rules barring such posts to those accused of criminal conduct. House Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the third-ranking leader, was elected by Republican House members yesterday afternoon to fill the spot temporarily after conservatives threatened a revolt against another candidate considered by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Although the indictment had been rumored for weeks among top Republicans, based on what several described as a difficult meeting in August between DeLay and the Texas prosecutor behind the case, it shook the GOP political establishment and posed new problems for the party as it heads into the midterm elections next year.
DeLay bitterly denounced the charge as baseless and defiantly called the prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, "an unabashed partisan zealot" engaging in "personal revenge" because DeLay helped elect a Republican majority to the Texas House in 2002. "I have the facts, the law and the truth on my side," DeLay said, reading from a statement, before declining to answer questions.
But the indictment, which comes after three rebukes of DeLay in 2004 by the House ethics committee on unrelated matters, poses a major political problem for the 58-year-old Bush administration loyalist, 11-term congressman, and self-described champion of free enterprise and deregulation. DeLay is also likely to face an inquiry by the ethics committee into a series of foreign trips he took that were initially partly paid for by lobbyists.
The indictment specifically alleges that DeLay, who helped organize the Texas political committee at the heart of the charge, participated in a conspiracy to funnel corporate money into the 2002 state election "with the intent that a felony be committed."
Using corporate funds for state election purposes has long been illegal in Texas, as it is in 17 other states. Earle's probe of the contributions began after 17 Republicans who received the committee's funds were elected, giving the party control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years. One year later, following a road map that DeLay and his political aides drafted from Washington, the Texas House approved a sweeping reorganization of the state's congressional district map meant to favor Republicans.
Then, in 2004, five more Texas Republicans were elected to Congress, enlarging the Republican majority in the House .
The facts of one of the central transactions at issue in the case have never been in dispute -- the transfer in September 2002 to an arm of the Republican National Committee in Washington of $190,000 in corporate funds collected by the committee in Texas and the subsequent donation by the RNC arm of $190,000 to seven Texas House candidates on Oct. 4, 2002.
Earle has long alleged that this transfer was intended to circumvent the Texas law. A copy of the relevant check from the Texas committee has been in his hands for more than a year, and he has repeatedly said the committee supplied the RNC with a list showing which Texas candidates should eventually be paid the funds.
Some evidence collected in a related civil case has pointed to heavy involvement by DeLay in the operations of the Texas committee. Its start-up was financed by a transfer of corporate funds from his leadership fund. He was a member of the Texas committee's advisory board in 2001 and 2002, participated in its strategizing, appeared at its fundraisers, and signed its solicitations. He also attended dinners with corporate donors that agreed to contribute tens of thousands of dollars to it; his fundraisers recorded the favors that donors sought.
But DeLay has long denied participating in its day-to-day operations and said that its activities were vetted by lawyers. As a result, the key question in Washington and Austin has been whether DeLay knew about the $190,000 transactions -- an allegation that lawyers say could be proved only by documentary evidence, such as an e-mail, or in grand jury testimony by one of those involved.