DeLay Team Weighed Misdemeanor Plea to Save GOP Post

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 11, 2005

Lawyers for Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) tried unsuccessfully in late September to head off felony criminal indictments against the then-majority leader on charges of violating Texas campaign law by signaling that DeLay might plead guilty to a misdemeanor, according to four sources familiar with the events.

The lawyers' principal aim was to try to preserve DeLay's leadership position under House Republican rules that bar lawmakers accused of felonies from holding such posts. DeLay was forced to step down as leader on Sept. 28 after the first of two grand jury indictments.

The last-minute negotiations between the lawyers and Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle were arranged after DeLay made what Earle considered a seriously damaging admission about his fundraising activities during an Aug. 17 meeting with the prosecutor in Austin.

At that session, DeLay acknowledged that in 2002 he was informed about and expressed his support for transfers of $190,000 in mostly corporate funds from his Texas political action committee to an arm of the Republican National Committee in Washington and then back to Texas, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be named.

Those transfers are at the heart of the prosecutor's investigation of the alleged use of corporate funds in the 2002 Texas elections, in violation of state law. In the prosecutor's view, DeLay's admission put him in the middle of a conspiracy not only to violate that law but also to launder money.

As disclosed by sources involved with the case, the new details present a more complete picture of the sequence of events leading to the indictment of DeLay at the end of September. They reveal the unusual lengths to which DeLay and his lawyers were willing to go to avoid charges that would force him to leave his powerful post -- and how it was DeLay's own words that ultimately got him in trouble with the prosecutor.

The disclosures also show the potential weakness of the Travis County prosecutor's case. Sources said it is based so far almost entirely on DeLay's admissions to Earle and his subsequent statements in media interviews about the money transfers. To date, Earle has not gathered compelling testimony from other witnesses or found documents that portray DeLay as the mastermind of the $190,000 transfers, they added.

The plea talks foundered over a disagreement about the conditions under which DeLay might plead guilty. Dick DeGuerin, who was later appointed DeLay's lead defender, has since played down DeLay's admissions to Earle. He said that DeLay was not informed in advance of the first transfer of funds -- from Texas to Washington -- and that therefore any later awareness does not amount to involvement in a conspiracy.

Another DeLay lawyer, Bill White, confirmed that "we had authority to kick . . . around a bit" the idea of guilty pleas. But he emphasized that DeLay was negotiating with Earle out of duress. His lawyers were trying to figure out: "Is there any way around this so he does not have to give up the leadership?"

Earle declined to comment for this article.

A Texas PAC

The case had its origins in 2001, when DeLay helped create a political action committee called Texans for a Republican Majority. TRMPAC raised more than $500,000 before the 2002 elections from corporate donors such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Bacardi USA Inc., and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc.

Most of the money was spent to help get Republicans elected to the Texas House. DeLay's goal was to put the GOP in control of redrawing Texas congressional districts so more Republicans would be elected to the U.S. House.

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