By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A01
Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was both defiant and ebullient on Monday after hearing that the Justice Department had dropped its six-year investigation of his interactions with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a host of other political contributors for whom he allegedly did political favors.
"I always knew this day would come," DeLay said on the telephone from his home in Sugar Land, Tex. He said he has no regrets about his conduct in Washington, insisted that his actions were always legal, and assailed what he called the "criminalization of politics" by a federal ethics enforcement process he considers deeply flawed.
His celebratory remarks came a week before he is slated to return to a Texas courtroom for a pretrial hearing on allegations of felony conspiracy and money laundering, which still could put the 63-year-old politician behind bars. His 2005 indictment in that Texas case is what short-circuited his three-year tenure in one of Washington's most powerful jobs.
The Justice Department declined to comment about DeLay's claim of exoneration, following its policy of not discussing the status or termination of its criminal investigations. A source familiar with the long-running inquiry, in which many witnesses were brought before one or more grand juries, confirmed that it had ended.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said the main reason for dropping the effort was that prosecutors were unable to compel incriminating testimony by a former DeLay aide, Edwin A. Buckham, and find other witnesses or evidence that could have led to a conviction.
Buckham has similarly been cleared by the Justice Department, a source close to DeLay said. Buckham's attorney, David Geneson, declined to comment.
In recent years, DeLay has worked on rehabilitating his public image as well as his career, appearing in a television dancing competition, working as a paid consultant to corporations and advising -- by his own description -- the factions that make up the "tea party" movement.
Asked whether he plans to attempt a return to Congress, DeLay acknowledged that his political effectiveness has been hampered by years of scrutiny. People don't necessarily "want to associate with you" after being under such a heavy legal cloud for so long, he said, explaining why he has declined to endorse candidates.
The Justice Department investigation focused in part on payments made by Buckham, a former adviser who was a registered lobbyist in 2000, to cover some of DeLay's expenses on an overseas golf trip. Doing so violated House rules, but DeLay said he was unaware of the payments. Buckham's now-shuttered firm employed DeLay's wife, Christine, from 1998 to 2002 and set up a retirement account for her. A political action committee that Buckham controlled employed both DeLay's wife and his daughter.
The payments amounted to nearly half a million dollars, drawn partly from revenue from corporations and their officers that had interests in legislation pending before the House.
DeLay and Buckham were at one point two of the principal targets in the department's multifaceted probe of Abramoff's lobbying practice that led to the convictions of 19 people, including two DeLay aides. DeLay has maintained he was unaware of their wrongdoing. He said Monday that the department "couldn't find anything" otherwise in the documents, e-mails and computer hard drives that his office had turned over to investigators without protest.
The source familiar with the investigation said that some of those working on the probe had disagreed about the importance of holding out for Buckham's testimony when Abramoff himself was potentially available as a cooperating witness. Abramoff recently worked in a kosher pizza parlor in Baltimore while wrapping up a four-year sentence for conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion.
DeLay referred to Abramoff, who admitted to corrupting public officials and defrauding his clients, as "a friend of mine." He said Abramoff's lavish pay from Native American tribes for lobbying had resulted from inattention by the leaders of those tribes.
Known for a hard-edged, take-no-prisoners political style reflected in his nickname, "The Hammer," DeLay decried what he called "new politics" in which opponents try to "drown you," ruin your finances and then "dance on your grave."
When asked whether he thought the recent House ethics charges against Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) also resulted an effort to punish successful fundraising and strong political views, DeLay said their cases are different from his.
DeLay's principal attorney, Richard Cullen of Richmond, said the Justice Department's decision also covered Christine DeLay. "We had conversations off and on during '05, '06, '07 that were across the board," Cullen said of his contacts with the Justice Department. "Prosecutors follow leads and a lot of those leads were in the paper."
DeLay and Cullen said that he was never interviewed during the probe.
Staff writer James V. Grimaldi contributed to this report.