Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) met for at least 30 minutes with the top fundraiser of his Texas political action committee on Oct. 2, 2002, the same day that the Republican National Committee in Washington set in motion a series of financial transactions at the heart of the money-laundering and conspiracy case against DeLay.
During the meeting at his Capitol office, DeLay conferred with James W. Ellis, the head of his principal fundraising committee in Washington and his chief fundraiser in Texas. Ellis had earlier given the Republican National Committee a check for $190,000 drawn mostly from corporate contributions. The same day as the meeting, the RNC ordered $190,000 worth of checks sent to seven Republican legislative candidates in Texas.
In the past two weeks, two separate Texas grand juries have returned indictments against DeLay, Ellis and a political associate alleging that these transactions amounted to money laundering intended to circumvent a Texas campaign law barring the use of corporate funds for state election purposes. The aim of the alleged scheme was to ensure that Republicans gain control of the Texas House, and thus reorder the state's congressional districts in a manner favoring the election of more Republicans to Congress.
The prosecutor who brought the indictment, Ronnie Earle, has not described the evidence he presented to the grand jury linking DeLay to the $190,000 transactions. But the fact that DeLay and his alleged co-conspirator, fundraiser Ellis, conferred on the same day the checks were ordered has attracted the attention of lawyers involved in the case because of speculation that the two men shared important information that day.
To prove that DeLay participated in money laundering or in a conspiracy to conduct it -- the two allegations in the felony indictment brought against DeLay on Monday morning -- Earle will have to prove two things, according to lawyers who are closely following the case: The transactions involving the $190,000 were illegal, and DeLay played some critical role, by approving them or by helping to carry them out.
DeLay and Ellis have so far given slightly different accounts of the substance of their discussion. Ellis's attorney, Jonathan D. Pauerstein, said that Ellis recalls that their Oct. 2 discussion did not concern or involve Texas or Texas candidates. But DeLay, interviewed last weekend on "Fox News Sunday," said that during a "scheduling meeting" with Ellis in October, Ellis said while they were leaving his office that "by the way, we sent money" to Washington.
DeLay's lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said in an interview this week that "there is no question that at some point Ellis told him," but that DeLay does not recall the precise timing. DeGuerin said "it could have been that day" -- Oct. 2, the day the same arm of the RNC began to process the seven checks for printing two days later, on Oct. 4.
But DeGuerin said that this does not mean DeLay was "the one who made those decisions" about collecting the funds, sending them to Washington and returning the same total amount to candidates in Texas. "It wasn't his role or his authority" because DeLay was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the committee.
Ellis, who still directs DeLay's Washington-based Americans for a Republican Majority political action committee (ARMPAC), "is the kind of guy who would say, 'I did this, how about that?' " according to DeGuerin. DeLay may have responded, DeGuerin said, by saying, "Hey, that's great," but "that does not make him a part of the agreement to do that."
In the indictment, the grand jury accused DeLay, Ellis and John Colyandro -- then the director of Texans for a Republican Majority, an ARMPAC offshoot -- of agreeing with the Republican National Committee to conduct the offense of money laundering and set forth a sequence of key events that began on Sept. 11, 2002. It alleges that Ellis "did request and propose" on that day that an arm of the RNC make the payments to Texas Republicans once it had received the check from Texas.
The next day, according to the indictment, Ellis delivered the check to the Republican National State Elections Committee, an arm of the RNC, and also provided it "with a document that contained the names of several candidates." He also "requested and proposed" how much each candidate should receive, the indictment said.
Earle has never disclosed the evidence behind these allegations, and Ellis, through his lawyer Pauerstein, denies this account. Pauerstein says that Ellis did not discuss donations to candidates while delivering the check, and that he did not "deliver the list, if there was a list," of the candidates that should receive checks.
According to documents disclosed earlier this year in a civil trial related to the same transactions, a staff member in the office of then-RNC Chairman Marc Racicot requested on Oct. 2 that checks be sent to the Texas Republicans. The next day, Racicot arrived in Texas to appear at a series of fundraising events organized by Texans for a Republican Majority, including a dinner with Gov. Rick Perry, a DeLay ally. With the approval of the RNC's lawyers and political directors, the checks were written and sent to Texas on Oct. 4.
The RNC has denied any wrongdoing and has asserted that all the transactions were legal.
Although the indictment alleges that DeLay and his two aides "conducted, supervised, and facilitated" the transactions, DeLay said last weekend, about the $190,000 sent from Texas to Washington, that "there was no way that I knew before this event happened that it would happen." Earle would need to prove otherwise to sustain his case.
DeLay, one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, was forced under House GOP rules to step down as majority leader on Sept. 28 after his first indictment.