The head of a Texas political group organized by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay made an urgent request on Sept. 10, 2002, to the group's accountant: Send a blank check overnight to DeLay's chief fundraiser in Washington. The next day, the fundraiser, James W. Ellis, inscribed it to an arm of the Republican National Committee and wrote in the amount: $190,000.
It was an odd, election-eve donation of funds to Washington by a political group formed to support Republicans in Texas. But that was not the whole story. On Oct. 4, 2002, the RNC sent the same total amount in seven checks ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 to candidates for the Texas House.
It is this transaction -- the swift and loosely documented transfer of funds from Texas to Washington and the subsequent transfer of the same amount in multiple checks back to Texas -- that lies at the heart of Wednesday's indictment of DeLay and two political associates by a Texas prosecutor, Ronnie Earle.
But little else about the transaction is uncontested, either in court or among political finance experts, who disagree about whether the transaction was legal and can only speculate about the precise evidence connecting it to DeLay (R-Tex.). What seems clear so far is that such funds transfers are more likely to be viewed as manipulations by authorities at the state level than they are by political parties or leaders in Washington, some of whom assert they were legal and routine.
Earle, the Travis County prosecutor, has asserted for example that the two payments amount to money-laundering meant to facilitate the DeLay political group's effort to circumvent knowingly the state's ban on corporate election contributions. A county prosecutor in Minnesota is making the same argument in a virtually identical case against the head of that state's Republican Party.
The RNC, whose Washington-based officials have not been indicted, takes a sharply different view of the propriety of receiving corporate funds from political organizations in states with restrictive laws and then spending identical sums on political campaigns in those states.
"Whether it was a coincidence or whether -- in sort of the worst-case scenario. . . . it was a fully arranged deal to send up $190,000 worth of corporate dollars and then later send back . . . 190,000 dollars of personal dollars [for Texas campaigns], who cares?" asked the top election law counsel for the RNC, Charles R. Spies.
"It's perfectly legal," he said, because the funds that came into the committee and the funds paid out by the committee came from separate bank accounts -- they were, in short, not the same pieces of scrip even if the dollar amounts matched.
Spies made that remark under cross-examination last March in a civil lawsuit brought by five of the Texas Democrats who lost their House seats in the 2002 election partly because of high spending by corporations, a plebiscite that turned out to have high stakes for both parties on the local and national stage.
In all, 17 Texas House Republicans who received funds from DeLay's Texas political action committee -- formally known as Texans for the Republican Majority or TRMPAC -- were elected. That result gave the party control of the House and enabled it to orchestrate a redrawing of the boundaries of congressional districts in a manner calculated to favor Republican candidates.
The result: Five more Texas Republicans were elected to the U.S. House in 2004, a stunning political success that dimmed the Democrats' chances of wresting away political control of Congress. DeLay has long acknowledged this was his goal. But yesterday he denied knowing about the key transfers of funds between Texas and Washington.
Even before Earle can attempt to prove that DeLay agreed to the transactions "with the intent that a felony be committed" -- as his indictment alleges, he must first prove in state court that the transactions were illegal. So far, two Texas judges have indicated they find Earle's argument more compelling than the national Republican-centered view that transactions of this sort are allowed.
In May, Judge Joseph H. Hart ruled in Austin that some of the Democrats who lost the 2002 election were entitled to damages equivalent to double the sums the GOP candidates received and spent on their elections from the RNC. The Democrats' lawyer, Cris Feldman, says that Hart's ruling amounted to a tacit confirmation that the candidates had received tainted corporate funds and that money-laundering occurred in the case.
In July, Judge Robert Perkins rejected Republican claims that the state law barring the use of corporate funds was unconstitutionally vague and did not apply to the circumstances outlined in Earle's case. The judge also reaffirmed grand jury indictments for money-laundering leveled against the two political aides alleged by Earle to have conspired with DeLay.
Spies, the RNC lawyer, has given testimony in both Texas and Minnesota courts asserting that in Washington all these transactions are carefully monitored to forestall wrongdoing. He has also said corporate money that cannot be legally spent in 18 states was deposited in bank accounts kept "fire-walled off" from accounts holding non-corporate funds that can be freely spent in those states.
"Trading money is the practice," Spies testified, or at least it was in 2002 before federal election law reforms were enacted to obstruct it.
His testimony did not deter Earle, and it also made little impact on Patrick Flanagan, the prosecutor for Mower County, Minn., who two years ago indicted the state Republican Party chairman for collecting $15,000 from an insurance company and sending the money to the Republican National Committee in Washington -- only to get the funds back later.
Flanagan says that those in Washington who talk of separate bank accounts "are just . . . moving the shells around."
The Minnesota prosecution has not gone forward without difficulty. A state District Court last year threw out the indictments based in part on Spies's testimony about the separate accounts kept by the RNC. But a state appellate court later ruled that the judge had exceeded his authority and affirmed that "probable cause" existed to believe the then-state chairman, Ronald E. Eibensteiner, committed violations of the campaign law.
That ruling cited evidence that Eibensteiner had told a state auditor "there was a mechanism at the party's national office for using corporate contributions in state campaigns." The state Supreme Court affirmed the appellate ruling in March.
There is, however, an important difference in the public records associated with the two cases. In Minnesota, the prosecutor has presented documents making clear that the Republican chairman knew about the transfer of corporate funds to Washington. Earle has presented no evidence in public that DeLay had similar knowledge, and yesterday DeLay denied it.
"I didn't know they did this legal activity," DeLay told CNN, referring to the transfer of $190,000 to the RNC by his alleged co-conspirators, TRMPAC director John Colyandro and Washington fundraiser James Ellis. DeLay also said he did not know which Texas candidates the two men had "targeted" for donations from Washington in a note they sent to the RNC along with the check. "I did not know where the money went," he said.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.