A Texas grand jury today indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) on a criminal count of conspiring with two political associates to violate state campaign finance law, and DeLay announced he was temporarily stepping down as House majority leader.
DeLay denounced the charge against him as "reckless," and he acerbically blasted the Democratic district attorney prosecuting the case as "an unabashed partisan zealot" seeking revenge for Democratic political defeats in Texas.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), emerging from a meeting with House GOP leaders late in the afternoon, announced that Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the Republican whip, was elected to assume DeLay's role as majority leader on a temporary basis. Hastert also said some duties would be transferred to Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the Rules Committee chairman, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the deputy whip.
The indictment was disclosed in Travis County, Tex., on the last day of a grand jury investigating a campaign financing scheme involving allegedly illegal use of corporate funds.
DeLay attended a meeting in Hastert's office shortly after receiving word of the indictment. GOP House rules require that any member of Congress who is indicted must step down from a leadership position. However, there is no requirement that DeLay leave his congressional seat.
"In accordance with the rules of the House Republican Conference, I will temporarily step aside as floor leader in order to win exoneration from these baseless charges," DeLay told reporters shortly after the indictment was announced.
"This morning, in an act of blatant political partisanship, a rogue district attorney in Travis County, Texas, named Ronnie Earle charged me with one count of criminal conspiracy: a reckless charge wholly unsupported by the facts," DeLay said, reading from a prepared statement. "This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history. It's a sham and Mr. Earle knows it."
He went on to call Earle a "partisan fanatic" who was conducting a "vengeful investigation" as part of a "coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution."
DeLay said, "I have done nothing wrong. I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House. I have done nothing unlawful, unethical or, I might add, unprecedented. . . . My defense in this case will not be technical or legalistic; it will be categorical and absolute. I am innocent. Mr. Earle and his staff know it. And I will prove it." DeLay did not answer questions at the end of his six-minute statement.
Earle, speaking to reporters earlier in Austin, refused to comment on criticism by DeLay's representatives or to go into details about the evidence against the congressman.
"Our job is to prosecute abuses of power," Earle said.
Hastert said after the vote on DeLay's temporary successor that "he will fight this, and we will give him our utmost support." He said the House has important work to do, necessitating a replacement for DeLay.
Blunt said DeLay was targeted "largely because of his effectiveness" as majority leader. "I will act as temporary leader, and Tom will come back as leader" after he is exonerated, Blunt said. He called the indictment "terribly unfair."
DeLay faced reporters for the second time in the day after Hastert and Blunt spoke. He said the meeting of Republicans "was really an uplifting conference. These are difficult times, obviously, and to have the kind of support that was displayed in this conference of what we've been able to accomplish over the last 11 years we've been in the majority is just very heartwarming, and I greatly appreciate it." He again took no questions from reporters.
The indictment accuses DeLay of criminally conspiring to inject illegal corporate contributions into 2002 state elections that helped the Republican Party reorder the congressional map in Texas and cement its control of the House of Representatives in Washington.
The four-page indictment alleged for the first time that DeLay himself participated in a conspiracy with others to funnel corporate money into the 2002 state election "with the intent that a felony be committed."
In the indictment, DeLay is accused of conspiring with two associates: John D. Colyandro, the former executive director of a political action committee in Texas that was formed by DeLay, and James W. Ellis, the head of DeLay's national political committee. Colyandro and Ellis had previously been charged in an indictment that did not name DeLay.
DeLay helped organize the Texas election fundraising effort at the core of today's indictment, Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, known as TRMPAC. The committee itself was indicted on Sept. 8 for accepting illegal corporate funds. Eight corporations and an industry lobbying group have also been indicted during the 34-month probe.
The indictment charges that DeLay entered "into an agreement" with Colyandro and Ellis to circumvent the state's ban on corporate contributions by arranging for the donations to be sent first to an arm of the Republican National Committee in Washington, and then back to Republican candidates in Texas named on a written list prepared in Texas.
The conspiracy charge against DeLay carries a potential penalty of six months to two years in state prison and a fine of up to $100,000. DeLay, unlike the two others named in the indictment Wednesday, was not charged with money-laundering, an offense that can bring a 10-year prison term.
"This is a political vendetta," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for DeLay. "They could not get Tom DeLay at the polls," he said, apparently referring to the powerful Republican leader's political enemies. "Now they're trying to get him in court."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said today that President Bush still views DeLay as a "good ally" and "a leader we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people." McClellan added, "The president's view is that we need to let the legal process work."
In the House, Rep. Kenny Marchant, a freshman Republican from Dallas, said, "I'm very disappointed in the indictments," Washington Post staff writer Charles Babington reported. Marchant told reporters the charges were partisan and expressed confidence that DeLay would be fully cleared.
Asked what steps the party would take, he said, "We're all waiting for something from the speaker." He said he had no comment on whether the indictment would harm the Republican Party.
A lawyer for DeLay, Bill White, denounced the charge against his client as a "skunky indictment" that "stinks to high heaven."
Earle, the district attorney, refused to comment on White's characterization of the indictment or to provide any details of the case against DeLay.
He did not reply directly when asked if he had sought money-laundering charges against DeLay, saying only that "the grand jury returned indictments that the grand jury felt were appropriate."
"The investigation is continuing," he said. Although the grand jury that returned the indictments leaves office today, he said, it was "entirely possible" that a new grand jury would take up the matter.
One of the other alleged conspirators, Ellis, is still a director of DeLay's principal fundraising committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, which provided the seed money for the Texas offshoot in 2001. The other, Colyandro, is a veteran of White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove's former direct-mail firm and also formerly directed TRMPAC.
The facts of the central transactions at issue in the case -- the transfer to Washington in September 2002 of $190,000 in corporate funds collected by the committee in Texas and the subsequent donation of those funds to seven Texas House candidates on Oct. 4, 2002 -- have never been at issue. A copy of the relevant check has long been in the prosecutor's hands.
DeLay, an 11-term congressman from the Houston area, was elected majority whip in 1994 and became House majority leader in November 2002. His tough tactics in keeping his party in line and opponents at bay have earned him the nickname, "The Hammer."
With DeLay under fire for three admonishments by the House ethics committee on separate issues, and amid concerns about the grand jury investigation in Texas, House Republicans changed a rule in November 2004 so that DeLay could keep his leadership post in the event he were indicted. But intense criticism forced House Republicans to scuttle the change two months later.
Ellis, Colyandro and another DeLay associate and fundraiser, Warren RoBold, were originally indicted in September 2004 on charges involving the alleged illegal use of corporate funds to aid GOP candidates for the Texas state legislature in the 2002 elections.
Two weeks ago, the grand jury in Travis County issued an expanded indictment against Colyandro and Ellis that included new charges of criminal conspiracy, as well as felony charges of violating Texas election law.
Under Texas law, corporate contributions cannot legally be used to campaign politically for the election or defeat of state legislative candidates.
The fundraising activities behind the case were aimed at achieving the key DeLay goal of assuring Republican control of the Texas legislature, enabling the body to redraw the state's 32 U.S. House districts in a way likely to secure more victories by GOP congressional candidates and an expanded House majority for the party.
That goal was achieved after the Texas legislature redrew the boundaries in a controversial redistricting in 2003, leading to the defeat of several Democratic House incumbents in the November 2004 elections.