Transcript

Texas Grand Jury Indicts Rep. Tom DeLay

R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, September 29, 2005; 12:00 PM

A Texas grand jury indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) Wednesday on charges that he violated state campaign finance law. DeLay, who said the charges against him are "reckless" and called district attorney Ronnie Earle a "partisan fanatic," plans to temporarily step down from his position as House Majority Leader. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) will assume the role in the interim.

How likely is it that this indictment will result in a conviction? How could the accusations against DeLay affect the 2006 midterm elections?

Washington Post staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith was online Thursday, Sept. 29. at noon ET to discuss the indictment of House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay on charges that he violated campaign finance law.

The transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: I know it's a big "if," but if DeLay is convicted, how much jail time is he facing?

R. Jeffrey Smith: Good day everyone. I'll start with this easy factual question. if delay is convicted under the Texas conspiracy law, he faces a jail term of up to two years.

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Washington, D.C.: Do we know how legitimate (basically how strong) the indictment is against DeLay? Will it stick? Is it too early to know?

R. Jeffrey Smith: This is the question of the day. on one side of the question is the fact that the probe went on for three years before this indictment was brought. That fact has prompted some observers to remark that the case must be weak. On the other hand, proving conspiracy requires obtaining access to evidence that can be extraordinarily difficult to shake loose. It seems possible that something happened recently to enable the prosecutor to shake that information loose. we would all love to know what it is.

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Fairfax, Va.: DeLay's attorney last night told Ted Koppel that Earle can't prove that the corporate donations went to Texas candidates. But today's Post identifies the seven Texans who received the money. What has to be shown in order to prove that the money did in fact go to Texans as proscribed by law?

R. Jeffrey Smith: There is no question that $190,000 went to Texas candidates. The DeLay defense will be in part that this was not the SAME $190,000 that was collected from corporations and sent to Washington, because it came from a different account at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee. It will be interesting to see if a jury or judge swallows that one.

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Anonymous: Well, it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

But how long, if at all, will it keep DeLay from being 'effective' in the same manner he has been? Will he still be able to work behind the scenes without his title? It seems the prosecution has a tough burden of proof to carry and that DeLay will probably beat the rap. Will this have long-lasting effects on his ability to keep on as 'The Hammer', or will he recover and retake his past power position?

R. Jeffrey Smith: Although Mr. DeLay has been forced to relinquish his title, no one believes he has relinquished his role as a powerful influence on legislation and voting in the House of Representatives. Too many Republicans in the House like his politics and depend on the money he helps to collect for his actual power to be significantly diminished while the trial is pending or underway.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Do you think the Democrats would be better served by jumping in and attacking DeLay or assuming a more remote position of we have faith in the Texas court system both in the determination that there was enough evidence to take action and that he will be treated impartially and fairly. I am a Democrat and fear if the jeering starts it will make everyone look bad.

R. Jeffrey Smith: Most politicians would say that when someone is digging their own hole, it seems best to stand back and watch.

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Fairfax, Va.: It seems that the Republican's are sitting in their own stew. I'm an Independent voter who normally votes with Republicans, but lately with all of the scandals, they will get a no confidence vote from me in the next election cycle. What could the party possibly do at this point to put the best spin on the probes of: Abramoff, Frist, Rove and Katrina?

R. Jeffrey Smith: Interesting question. If all of these probes turn out badly -- if new indictments are brought, and the indictments turn to conviction -- obviously the best political course for the allies of those being targeted would be to condemn the crimes and promise a new culture. But Washington can be a strange place, where longstanding friendships or alliances interfere with clear thinking about the right thing to do.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't quite understand the purpose of the Texas law that DeLay allegedly violated ... what is it intended to do? How can you separate "administrative" expenses from campaign expenses?

R. Jeffrey Smith: The law is meant simply to remove the taint of special interest influence in state elections, by carefully limiting how corporate money can be used. it bars the use of such funds for election purposes, for example -- which state authorities have defined to mean things like polling, letter and phone campaigns, inquiries into the background of rivals. spending for administrative purposes is, to the contrary, allowed. Again, state authorities have defined administrative purposes as things like rent or routine telephone bills. in this case, most of the corporate money went to the first category -- things the state considers election purposes.

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Memphis, Tenn.: Are there other cases/investigations pending against Rep. DeLay?

R. Jeffrey Smith: Mr. DeLay himself has requested that the house ethics committee take up allegations that he improperly accepted gifts from lobbyists -- in particular, that he allowed lobbyists to pay for some of his foreign travel. That inquiry has been slowed by a partisan dispute over how the committee should be run. allies of Mr. DeLayprecipitated the fight by engineering the replacement of the chairman and staff that wrote three rebukes of delay last year.

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Washington, D.C.: When is the media going to start connecting the dots on this type of behavior more consistently, without waiting for legal action? While DeLay is really bad, this behavior might as well be called American politics. It happens all of the time up on the Hill.

R. Jeffrey Smith: This may be so. but breaking the law is still breaking the law. and we are doing everything we can as reporters to ensure that the public as a whole has a correct and full understanding of how things work in Washington. Just because a certain behavior is in broad terms commonplace does not mean that the particulars are not news to our readership.

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Rochester Hills, Mich.: Even though I am a Republican, I am hardly DeLay sympathizer, yet this whole case by Ronnie Earle reminds me of Tom Sneddon going after Michael Jackson. While I am sure Tom DeLay has committed some violation during his tenure in the House, why is no one questioning Ronnie Earles credentials? Here is a man who tried to prosecute Kay Bailey Hutchison only to drop his case at the last minute. Something is not right here.

R. Jeffrey Smith: It's true that the charges against senator Hutchinson were dismissed. but other cases brought by Earle succeeded. no prosecutor wins every case.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Thanks for taking out questions; your article on the DeLay indictment is the most informative thing I've read on it. Your article notes that no evidence against DeLay was presented in the indictment, in keeping with Texas law and prosecutorial practice. Do you know what the key evidence is? I presume that someone has testified (or will) to DeLay's involvement, and there are apparently rumors in Texas that it was not one of DeLay's co-conspirators but folks from the corporations where the money originated. Do you know anything about this?

R. Jeffrey Smith: There are lots of rumors around. we obviously share your interest in finding out what the evidence really is, or if there really is evidence.

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Detroit, Mich.: What is the type of community in Texas that DeLay represents? (That is rural vs. urban, poor vs. middle class, etc.) Putting aside his political views, given his rough and accusatory manner, I don't see how anybody would want to vote for him.

R. Jeffrey Smith: DeLay's community is a prosperous bedroom community for Houston -- it's average income exceeds the state's. Although it has been solidly republican for a long time, he faced an unusually tough fight in the 2004 election. And the democratic party will certainly be pouring major resources into the campaign of delay's opponent next year.

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Newark, Del.: One thing I found interesting about this case is that it doesn't just have to be shown that Tom DeLay broke the law. It has to be shown that he knew he was willfully breaking the law. But it sounds like the election rules for money are so complex that he could put up a defense like, "I didn't know that was wrong." Is my understanding correct?

R. Jeffrey Smith: DeLay could and likely will offer three defenses: 1. the transfer of money from Texas to Washington and the subsequent transfer of the same money back to Texas was not a crime. 2. DeLay was not aware of this transfer in advance. 3. DeLay did not approve of the transfer in advance. Ronnie Earle obviously thinks these are hurdles he can overcome.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: It appears that Mr. Earle has spent far more time prosecuting Democrats than Republicans (17 to 8 in one piece I read). Is there any factual basis for the Republican charge that Earle is a "fanatical partisan"?

R. Jeffrey Smith: Please read the nice, concise profile written of Mr. Earle by my colleague Chuck Babington. It's in the newspaper today.

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Fairfax, Va.: Would you care to speculate about what or who has been shaken loose to make DeLay's indictment possible? Didn't Earle need testimony to prove DeLay's involvement? I had read something about a possible connection between the procurement official's arrest, Abramoff and DeLay.

R. Jeffrey Smith: These are very separate cases, joined only by the slender thread that all those involved are conservatives who had long known each other and interacted for various reasons. They are or were in some cases friendly with Mr. DeLay. But the Texas case is one distinct track, and the federal probe that encompasses Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Safavian is another distinct track.

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Ogden, Utah: 1. Has Mr. DeLay moved out of the Majority Leader's office?

2. If he is found guilty, shouldn't the Texas redistricting won by this illegal act be rescinded and the districts returned to the 2000 map?

R. Jeffrey Smith: The Texas law does not provide for re-running the election there. instead, it provides for monetary damages to those victimized by wrongdoing, and in fact, the DeLay committee at the heart of the probe has been told by a state judge to pay such damages to defeated Democrats. At the same time, exposure of the wrongdoing seems likely to have some consequence in the next election.

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Ashburn, Va.: An article in this morning's paper suggests that DeLay is more about power than ideology. He has not been about throwing money at key constituencies that he feels could be helpful in the next election. Will backing him pose a problem for some of the more doctrinaire conservatives?

R. Jeffrey Smith: Power versus ideology -- the age-old Washington conundrum. most political observers have been saying with Mr. DeLay, the quest for power trumps ideology and thus that he adopts an extreme conservatism because that furthers his goals and enhances his power. I'm not so sure. A former pesticide company owner, he ran for office because he hated regulation (in this case, environmental regulation). I think he truly subscribes to the notion that the government's role in our lives should be minimal, and heavily constrained. his speeches suggest he feels people should be free to do pretty much what they wish. This is not really a mainstream view.

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Washington, D.C.: Is anyone surprised at how rapidly the far right conservatives mounted a challenged to David Drier's taking on new responsibilities as DeLay steps aside if, in fact, he really does? Secondly, since clearly the GOP knew this was coming and apparently had a plan in place, is Roy Blunt making a power play in the event of a complete Delay collapse or merely being a good lieutenant and "holding the fort" at the request of his far right colleagues?

R. Jeffrey Smith: Not many observers think blunt is anything more than a stand-in for DeLay. Everything changes if DeLay is convicted in this or any other case.

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Princeton, N.J.: Ogden, didn't ask about re-running the last election; he wanted to know whether the DeLay redistricting could be overturned for the 2006 election. Isn't there already a court case to do so? What do you think the chances are?

R. Jeffrey Smith: There may still be a court case pending. But the Justice Department certified (approved) the redistricting and I think a judge may already have given it preliminary blessing. it seems an uphill battle to overturn it.

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San Jose, Calif.: Everyone knows that it takes a really serious crime for a politician to go to jail. There is absolutely no way DeLay will ever be put behind bars. My question is this: in California, we have the ability to recall elected officials (like our governor). What is the process to recall DeLay, Frist ...?

R. Jeffrey Smith: Let's wait and see. Some politicians do wind up in jail. And on this note, I'm sorry but I have to turn now to the story I must write for tomorrow's newspaper. Thanks for all your fine questions, and I'm sorry not to have been able to answer more of them. Please stay tuned to this topic, along with all of us here in the news business. Cheers.

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