Three top political aides to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) were indicted Tuesday on charges of illegally raising political funds from corporations in 2002, much of which was funneled into the Republican takeover of the Texas legislature.
Corporate contributions to state legislative candidates are illegal in Texas. A Travis County grand jury indicted DeLay political aide Jim Ellis, fundraiser Warren RoBold and John Colyandro, the executive director of DeLay's political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, known as TRMPAC. Eight corporations also were indicted for illegal political contributions.
The grand jury never questioned DeLay or sought records from him. But the panel's actions could rattle his supporters and embolden his critics because the three men indicted include some of his closest and most loyal allies. Moreover, the targeted fundraising activities were at the heart of one of DeLay's most cherished, high-profile endeavors of the past several years: giving Republicans control of the Texas legislature so the state's 32 U.S. House districts could be redrawn in a way likely to send more Republicans to Congress.
That is what the legislature did last year, and DeLay has often cited the redistricting effort as a key reason he expects the Nov. 2 election to expand the GOP House majority.
Ellis, 47, of Arlington, Va., and Colyandro, 40, of Austin, were indicted on one count each of money laundering -- specifically taking $190,000 in corporate money raised by TRMPAC and giving it to the Republican National Committee, which, in turn, had the Republican National State Elections Committee contribute to seven Texas House candidates. In all, about 20 Republican candidates were helped by TRMPAC activities to win Texas House seats.
Colyandro was indicted on 13 counts of unlawfully accepting $425,000 in corporate political contributions. RoBold, 48, of Middletown was indicted on nine counts of unlawfully soliciting and accepting $250,000 in corporate political contributions.
The indictments follow a 21-month investigation by three different grand juries into the activities of TRMPAC. The result of that inquiry, said Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, was an "outline of an effort to use corporate contributions to control representative democracy in Texas."
Since 1905, Texas law has prohibited the giving or receiving of political contributions from corporations and labor unions to candidates.
At a news conference, Earle, a Democrat, said that although the three-month term of the latest grand jury expires Sept. 30, the investigation has not ended. "This is a continuing investigation into allegations of criminal activity related to the 2002 Texas elections," he said.
Those elections resulted in the Republican takeover of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction. With the legislature dominated by the GOP, Republican Tom Craddick of Midland was elected Texas House speaker last year and the Texas congressional districts were then redrawn to send more Republican lawmakers to Congress, strengthening DeLay's base as majority leader. The Washington Post has previously reported that Craddick's role in disbursing money to candidates from TRMPAC was being scrutinized by the grand jury, but he has not been charged and he was not named in Tuesday's indictment.
DeLay was not named as a target of the grand jury's investigation, but documents disclosed in the inquiry indicate that DeLay was central to creating and overseeing the political fundraising in Texas. When asked whether the continuing probe could lead to allegations of wrongdoing against DeLay, Earle said: "My response has been consistent, in that anyone who has committed a crime is a target."
In Washington, DeLay said the legal case in Texas would not affect him.
"This has been an investigation that has been underway for nearly two years, and 40 days before the election, suddenly they've taken action," DeLay said in a statement issued by his office. "You do the political math."
"I'll reiterate what I've said before and today's action emphasizes: I have not been subpoenaed; I have not been asked to testify; and I have not been called as a witness. They've made clear this investigation is not about me."
The indictments came less than 24 hours after the House ethics committee postponed a decision on a complaint against DeLay that includes allegations involving TRMPAC. The complaint, filed by Chris Bell, a Democratic lawmaker from Houston, alleges that DeLay was involved in the PAC's actions and decisions to the point that he is no less culpable than Ellis, Colyandro or RoBold.
The ethics committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, typically takes a wait-and-see posture when grand juries or law enforcement agencies pursue issues. That DeLay was not indicted, his supporters said, supports the argument that he has done nothing wrong. Public interest groups, however, called on the ethics panel to appoint an outside investigator. Some House Democrats say privately they would be surprised if the ethics committee took strong action against DeLay if a grand jury stops short of implicating him.
In Texas, an attorney for Colyandro also called the release of the indictment politically motivated and said that Colyandro sought advice from lawyers specializing in campaign finance law on how to raise and spend money from corporations. "So, clearly, he did not knowingly violate the law," Joe Turner said.
J.D. Pauerstein of San Antonio, an attorney for Ellis, said, "We are disappointed that the grand jury decided to find against Mr. Ellis on one count, and we are confident he will be exonerated."
RoBold's attorney in Austin, Wayne Meissner, did not return a phone call.
The businesses indicted were Sears, Roebuck and Co. of Illinois; Bacardi USA Inc. of Miami, a subsidiary of the Bermuda-based liquor producer; Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a subsidiary of CBRL Group Inc. in Lebanon, Tenn., that operates restaurants and retail operations in 41 states; Westar Energy Inc., an electric utility company in Topeka, Kan.; Diversified Collection Services Inc., a debt collection company in San Leandro, Calif.; Williams Companies Inc., a natural gas company in Tulsa; the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care Corp., an umbrella organization of some of the nation's largest nursing home operators; and Questerra Corp. of Charlottesville, a subsidiary of MeadWestvaco Corp.
They allegedly made illegal corporate political contributions ranging from $20,000 to $100,000.
Staff writer Charles Babington and researcher Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.