By R. Jeffrey Smith and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
A Texas judge upheld a felony indictment yesterday of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) on charges of money laundering in connection with the Texas election in 2002, while dismissing a separate DeLay indictment for allegedly conspiring with aides to violate the state's election law that year.
The decision to let stand the money-laundering charge, which carries a more severe penalty, was a blow to DeLay, whose lawyers had hoped the judge would dismiss all counts in the indictments. If that had happened, he would have sought to regain the leadership post he relinquished in September under rules barring such posts to lawmakers accused of felonies.
The ruling clears a key obstacle to DeLay's criminal trial in Texas, possibly beginning next month, although his aides noted that the judge still has not ruled on another DeLay claim that the Texas prosecutor who brought the charges had engaged in misconduct.
Senior District Judge Pat Priest, who took over the case after DeLay's lawyers objected to another judge on political grounds, did not rule in his 11-page decision on the issue of DeLay's culpability. In a slap at Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle, who oversaw the DeLay inquiry, Priest said a grand jury had erred in indicting DeLay for conspiracy when that crime was actually not covered by the state election law when it occurred.
But Priest also said that a different indictment -- hastily secured by Earle from a different grand jury after he realized the conspiracy charge might be flawed -- was worth hearing at trial. That indictment alleged in essence that DeLay and his associates illegally injected corporate funds into the 2002 campaign by transferring $190,000 to Republican headquarters in Washington in the expectation that the same total amount would be returned to Texas Republican candidates.
If the state can prove that "these defendants entered into [such] an agreement . . . then they will have established that money was laundered. The money would have become 'dirty money' at the point that it began to be held with prohibited intent," Priest wrote in his decision, which he posted on his Web site and filed with the court clerk in late afternoon.
His decision leaves standing Oct. 3 charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering involving financial transactions in September and October 2002, which both DeLay and the Republican National Committee say were legal and commonplace at the time.
DeLay has already acknowledged, in public statements and in an interview with the Texas prosecutor, that the funds at issue were raised to help Republicans gain control of the Texas House and oversee the legislature's redrawing of Texas congressional districts. The aim of this effort was to favor the election of more Republicans to Congress, and it succeeded: Five more Republicans were elected from Texas in 2004, cementing the party's control of Congress.
Career attorneys at the Justice Department, in a decision reached in 2003 that came to light only last week, concluded that the new map of congressional districts that DeLay and his aides drew had illegally discriminated against minorities for partisan political reasons. But political appointees at the department overruled this finding, and certified that the map could stand.
In his ruling, Priest explicitly rejected a claim by DeLay's lawyers that no crime occurred because the transactions at issue involved checks and the state law covered only transfers of cash. Priest also did not accept claims that the indictment was improperly written, that the corporate donations were legal, or that no money laundering occurred because the funds sent from Texas were deposited in a different bank account in Washington than the one used to send funds from Washington to the state Republican candidates.
On the other hand, Priest ruled that the grand jury had no legal foundation to indict DeLay and his associates on separate charges of conspiracy to violate the state election law. Earle's arguments in favor of the indictment "are not persuasive," Priest said, noting that the law was amended to include the offense in 2003 and "the presumption is that the Legislature does not do a useless act."
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden emphasized this part of the judge's decision in his comments. "The court's decision to dismiss a portion of Ronnie Earle's manufactured and flawed case against Mr. DeLay underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were. The judge's ruling, along with the recusal motion previously granted, represents yet another legal victory."
DeLay, Madden said, "is very encouraged by the swift progress of the legal proceedings and looks forward to his eventual and absolute exoneration based on the facts and the law."
The Bush administration has repeatedly signaled its continued support for DeLay, who until recently has been a powerful ally on tax, health, regulation and other domestic policy issues. Last evening, Vice President Cheney was slated to appear at a fundraiser for him in Houston, an event scheduled before the judge's decision.
But DeLay still faces obstacles to a political resurrection. Before his trial can begin, the judge must decide on a motion by DeLay's attorneys to move it from Austin and the prosecutorial misconduct motion; that could delay its conclusion until well into the new year.
DeLay's leadership position has been temporarily assumed by Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), and no new vote is planned. But a former GOP leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of crossing DeLay, said that among House Republicans "the overwhelming feeling is if things are not squared away by the time they come back in January, there will be a petition dropped on the speaker's desk for an election" to permanently replace him.
DeLay also faces hurdles in his political district. In a Gallup poll of DeLay's congressional district, released last night by CNN, just 36 percent of registered voters said they would support the congressman in November's election. Forty-nine percent said they would support his Democratic opponent. Only 37 percent of registered voters had a favorable opinion of their representative, vs. 52 percent who viewed him unfavorably.