Out of the House, Not Out of Trouble

By Cris Feldman
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

In announcing yesterday that he was dropping out of the race to keep his seat in Congress, Tom DeLay said he now intends to "engage in the important cultural and political battles of our day from outside the arena of the House of Representatives." Before he does that, though, he still faces a more immediate battle in another arena -- a Texas courtroom.

Ever since a grand jury in Austin indicted him on charges of laundering corporate cash to influence Texas's 2002 elections, DeLay has dismissed the action as a purely political act by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. But a review of the law and the facts in this case suggest otherwise.

The centerpiece of the Texas indictments is Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC), which DeLay founded and which his operatives ran, with the paid assistance of his daughter. DeLay himself headlined fundraisers, made fundraising calls, participated in strategic planning and conference calls, and personally collected corporate checks.

In a recent TRMPAC civil trial, the court ruled that the PAC illegally accepted and spent $532,333 in corporate cash and violated Texas law by not reporting it. Included within the illegal $532,333 was $190,000 that TRMPAC sent to the Republican National Committee in September 2002. The defense in the civil trial explicitly sought exoneration for this transaction, and it failed.

Here are the known facts. On Sept. 10, 2002, DeLay's co-defendant, John Colyandro, sent a blank check overnight to co-defendant Jim Ellis. On Sept. 13, 2002, Ellis handed over the check in question to the RNC. According to the indictment, Ellis filled in the check for $190,000 and provided the RNC with a list of seven candidates for the Texas House, along with designated sums of cash. On Sept. 20 the $190,000 was deposited by the RNC in a corporate cash account. On the morning of Oct. 2, Ellis met with DeLay at DeLay's Capitol office. That same day the RNC generated seven internal memos requesting seven different checks to the TRMPAC candidates. On Oct. 4 seven checks totaling $190,000 were cut from a noncorporate account containing millions of dollars. The check numbers were in sequential order, 7470 through 7476.

DeLay argues that the RNC sent money to state legislature candidates across the country. Yet the seven Texas TRMPAC candidates received checks ranging from $20,000 to $40,000, whereas the next-largest RNC contribution to a candidate for a seat in a state house of representatives was $2,000. DeLay has also said that the $190,000 was "left over" money that TRMPAC did not need. But numerous documents indicate otherwise. For example, on Oct. 20, 2002, Warren Robold, TRMPAC's now-indicted fundraiser, solicited a donor by stating, "We still need $125,000 of corporate funds to finish the project and pay our obligations."

DeLay's attacks on the prosecutor have been consistent, even as explanations of his own conduct have proved inconsistent. DeLay has said at different times that he knew about the $190,000 beforehand; that he heard about it after the fact; and that he did indeed discuss it with Ellis on Oct. 2, 2002.

Corporate contributions to candidates in Texas are illegal. To make such a contribution is a third-degree felony. A contribution is considered to be the direct or indirect transfer of money, including the agreement to make such a transfer. If DeLay in any way participated in an agreement to indirectly transfer $190,000 in corporate cash to Texas candidates, he still has a problem back in Texas.

The writer is an attorney in Austin. He was on the civil trial team that won a ruling last spring finding that TRMPAC illegally raised, spent and failed to report corporate contributions in Texas.

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