By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
The pending resignation of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), once one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington, comes amid a federal criminal investigation that already has reached into his inner circle of longtime advisers.
DeLay faces a trial later this year on money-laundering charges in Texas that stems from an October 2005 indictment related to corporate contributions to state elections in 2001 and 2002. Since then, two former aides and one of his most prominent contributors have pleaded guilty in a separate federal probe to crimes including conspiracy; wire, tax and mail fraud; and corruption of public officials.
The picture appeared to darken further last week with the guilty plea of Tony C. Rudy, DeLay's former deputy chief of staff. Edwin A. Buckham, the lawmaker's former chief of staff and his closest political and spiritual adviser, was described in court documents filed in the case as someone who collaborated with Rudy, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon. They arranged payments, trips and favors that the department's investigators charged were part of an illegal conspiracy, according to the documents.
DeLay himself was formally designated as "Representative #2" in the documents, a title that cannot be considered a good omen. The lawmaker designated in the same documents as Representative #1 -- Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) -- has been cited by the Justice Department as having received "things of value" for performing official acts.
Ney has not been formally named a target of the probe and denies wrongdoing. But he agreed last October to sign a Justice Department document waiving the five-year expiration of the statute of limitations on any alleged crimes until late April.
DeLay attorney Richard Cullen said last night that his client's decision to withdraw was "not connected to the criminal investigation."
DeLay and Buckham also have not been accused of wrongdoing by federal prosecutors, and they have asserted their innocence. But some of DeLay's official actions in Congress clearly fall within the scope of the continuing investigation: Last week's guilty plea by Rudy cites as part of the evidence of conspiracy a letter that DeLay wrote on behalf of an Abramoff client and legislation that DeLay supported on behalf of a client of Abramoff's firm.
DeLay has assembled a substantial legal team to fight back, and he has a defense fund -- financed largely by corporations with business before Congress -- that contained more than $600,000 at the end of last year, based on the cumulative record of its receipts and contributions. But contributions to the fund dropped from $318,000 to $181,500 between the third and fourth quarters of 2005.
DeLay also is entitled under federal election rules to convert any or all of the remaining funds from his reelection campaign to his legal expenses, whether or not he resigns, is indicted or loses the election. Election lawyers say one advantage of bowing out of the election now is that the campaign cash can be converted to pay legal bills immediately, instead of being drained in the course of a bid to stay in office.
As of Feb. 15, when his campaign filed its most recent report with the Federal Election Commission, DeLay had $1,295,350 on hand. But that was two weeks before the Texas primary in which DeLay bested three Republican rivals to win renomination, and the pot of money available to him now may be considerably less.
By stepping aside so early in an election year, a lawmaker "wouldn't be spending to be reelected" and could transfer the funds immediately to fend off any federal charges, said lawyer Kenneth A. Gross, a former head of the FEC's enforcement division. The last lawmaker to gain the FEC's formal approval for such a transfer was Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), who resigned last November after pleading guilty to evading taxes and accepting bribes.
Cunningham and DeLay shared a major contributor, Brent Wilkes, whose actions figured in the probe that led to Cunningham's eight-year prison term. Wilkes flew DeLay on his corporate jet at a time when he was seeking government contracts for his computer software firm, though no evidence has emerged that DeLay provided favors for Wilkes.
The central legal challenge for DeLay is more likely to arise from the work of the federal task force, made up of FBI and tax agents, Interior Department investigators, and prosecutors from the Justice Department's public integrity unit. A grand jury subpoena issued by the FBI in February for records of the U.S. Family Network, a nonprofit group formed by Buckham, specifically asked for any documents related to DeLay; his wife, Christine; Buckham's lobbying firm; Rudy; and a variety of contributors to the group from among Abramoff's client list.
Database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.