A grand jury in Texas indicted yesterday a state political action committee organized by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for accepting $120,000 in allegedly illegal corporate campaign contributions shortly before and after the 2002 elections that helped Republicans cement their control of the House of Representatives.
The indictment follows a lengthy investigation in Austin that previously had targeted the defunct political action committee's executive director, John Colyandro. He was indicted last year for accepting illegal corporate donations and for illegally laundering $190,000 in corporate funds through the Republican National State Elections Committee that later wound up in the hands of Texas Republican candidates.
The criminal charges are based on a Texas election law, akin to rules in 17 other states, that strictly bars political contributions from corporations for election purposes. But according to evidence submitted in a related civil trial, the committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), raised and spent at least $523,000 in corporate funds -- most of which were not reported to state election officials.
The funds paid for surveys, mailings, receptions, candidate investigations and probes of Democratic candidates that helped Republicans gain control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years, and enabled them to redraw the state's congressional districts in 2003 in such a way that Texas voters elected five more Republicans to Congress in 2004.
DeLay, who was a member of the committee's advisory board, signed fundraising solicitations and participated in at least one conference call to discuss the committee's plans, was not named in the indictment. He also has not been publicly identified as a target of the continuing investigation by Travis County District Attorney Ronald Earle.
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden responded to the indictment with a written statement saying that it "is limited to a political organization and does not affect Mr. DeLay."
Madden also disclosed for the first time that DeLay had "voluntarily" talked to Earle's office about the investigation last month, and that DeLay said then that his involvement in the committee's activities was "limited to serving on the political action committee's advisory board along with other elected Texas officials and . . . appearing at fundraising events."
Madden said DeLay "assured the district attorney's office that he was not involved in the day-to-day operations of TRMPAC, and to his knowledge all activities were properly reviewed and approved by lawyers" for the committee.
When asked yesterday about DeLay, however, Earle said at a news conference that he was hampered in bringing charges by a provision of the election law that gives him direct authority only over residents of Travis County. He has separately said he does not face that limitation with respect to bringing new charges under the state money-laundering statute.
DeLay's residence is in Fort Bend County, where the prosecutor is an elected Republican, John F. Healey Jr. If Earle found evidence of criminal wrongdoing by DeLay under the election statute, he could only pass on the information to Healey with a recommendation that he pursue the matter.
Earle has not done so, several sources said yesterday, but has until the end of this month to decide the matter under a three-year statute of limitations.
The grand jury singled out two contributions that it said the committee illegally accepted -- a $20,000 contribution from AT&T Corp. on Nov. 18, 2002, and a $100,000 contribution from the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care Inc. on Oct. 24, 2002. The latter donation generated considerable controversy in Texas political circles after local newspapers reported that state Rep. Tom Craddick accepted it in a white envelope from the head of a large Texas nursing home chain during a meeting at a Houston restaurant.
Craddick's attorney, Roy Q. Minton, said that Craddick -- who was later elected speaker of the House and in that role oversaw the redrawing of congressional districts -- immediately passed the check along to TRMPAC. "Just because the guy happens to be speaker of the House does not mean it's against the law," Minton said.
Terry Scarborough, an attorney for TRMPAC before it formally went out of business this summer, declined to comment on the committee's indictment. Four additional indictments by the grand jury separately accused the Texas Association of Business with accepting additional illegal corporate funds and coordinating its expenditure with TRMPAC. Attorneys for the association have denied wrongdoing.