YESTERDAY'S indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on charges of conspiring to violate Texas campaign finance laws won't come as a surprise to anyone who's watched the Texas Republican operate over the years. In his drive to consolidate Republican power, Mr. DeLay has consistently pushed, and at times stepped over, ethical boundaries.
He is, as we said last year, an ethical recidivist -- unabashed about using his legislative and political power to reward supporters and punish opponents, and brazen in how he links campaign contributions and political actions. Among the DeLay activities that have drawn disapproval from the House ethics committee: threatening a trade association for daring to hire a Democrat; enlisting federal aviation officials to hunt for Democratic state legislators trying to foil his Texas redistricting plan; and holding a golf fundraiser for energy companies just as the House was to consider energy legislation.
Nonetheless, at least on the evidence presented so far, the indictment of Mr. DeLay by a state prosecutor in Texas gives us pause. The charge concerns the activities of Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a political action committee created by Mr. DeLay and his aides to orchestrate the GOP's takeover of the Texas legislature in 2002. The issue is whether Mr. DeLay and his political aides illegally used the group to evade the state's ban on corporate contributions to candidates. The indictment alleges that TRMPAC took $155,000 in corporate contributions and then sent a check for $190,000 to the national Republican Party's "soft money" arm. The national committee then wrote $190,000 in checks from its noncorporate accounts to seven Texas candidates. Perhaps most damning, TRMPAC dictated the precise amount and recipients of those donations.
This was an obvious end run around the corporate contribution rule. The more difficult question is whether it was an illegal end run -- or, to be more precise, one so blatantly illegal that it amounts to a criminal felony rather than a civil violation. For Mr. DeLay to be convicted, prosecutors will have to show not only that he took part in the dodge but also that he knew it amounted to a violation of state law -- rather than the kind of clever money-trade that election lawyers engineer all the time.
Mr. DeLay's spokesman said this month that "to his knowledge all activities were properly reviewed and approved by lawyers" for TRMPAC. If so, the criminal law seems like an awfully blunt instrument to wield against Mr. DeLay. If not, we look forward to seeing the evidence. In the meantime, as required by party rules, Mr. DeLay has stepped aside as majority leader. Whatever happens in the criminal case, perhaps this latest controversy will cause his colleagues to rethink whether he is, in fact, the person they really want as their leader.