Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) surrendered Thursday to the county sheriff's office in Houston, and was then photographed, fingerprinted and released, three weeks after becoming the sole member of the House leadership in Washington to be indicted in at least 50 years.
The booking of one of the nation's most powerful politicians was forced by an arrest warrant issued Wednesday by a district court here in the state's capital, in preparation for DeLay's eventual trial on felony criminal charges of money laundering and conspiracy related to the allegedly illegal use of corporate funds in the 2002 state election.
DeLay flew to Texas in a private jet and was accompanied by two U.S. Capitol Police officers.
DeLay, 58, and his attorneys have said the charges are ill-founded and politically motivated. DeLay's congressional office in Washington released a statement in the afternoon saying that the former leader "looks forward to his inevitable exoneration of these ridiculous charges."
The statement asserted that "this is going to end up as an embarrassing episode for . . . national Democrats" and the Travis County district attorney overseeing the state election probe, Ronnie Earle.
But the charges could have serious consequences if upheld in court. Violations of the state's money-laundering statute -- a law commonly used against drug smugglers -- are punishable by a maximum life prison term and a $10,000 fine.
The two indictments naming DeLay both allege that he conspired with political aides James W. Ellis and John Colyandro to inject corporate donations into the 2002 state election, in violation of a long-standing Texas prohibition on the use of corporate funds for election purposes. In particular, they allege that $190,000 collected in Texas, mostly from corporations, was laundered through the national Republican Party in Washington before being returned to selected state candidates.
The aim of the alleged financing scheme was to support a Republican takeover of the Texas House, enabling the new majority to redraw congressional districts to favor the election of more Republicans to Congress. Five more Texas Republicans were elected to Congress in 2004, after the redistricting.
Ellis and Colyandro have denied wrongdoing. At a news conference in Washington that began just as DeLay left the sheriff's office, Ellis said, "The fact that Democrat leaders in Texas and nationally are attempting to use the criminal justice system to achieve the political victories that they failed to win at the ballot box makes them no better than Third World despots who impose their political will by jailing their opponents."
Ellis, who still runs DeLay's leadership political fund, Americans for a Republican Majority, demurred, however, when asked whether he had supplied Republican officials in Washington with a list of names of Texas candidates that were to receive the $190,000. Ellis said that he and Colyandro deny Earle's "version of the story" but said lawyers have advised them not to discuss details of the case.
Asked whether he could deny that any such list exists, Ellis said: "I don't want to comment until I see what list [the prosecutors] are talking about. As you know, in campaigns and politics, there are all kinds of lists. We deny what it says in the indictment, and, based on our attorneys' advice, we have to go through the legal process to tell our story."
Meanwhile, the House ethics committee has not decided whether it will open an investigation into the issues involved in DeLay's indictment. This month, ethics committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) told the Yakima Herald newspaper that the panel historically has not duplicated outside investigations and declined -- in keeping with the committee's custom -- to say whether it might consider taking action against DeLay once the prosecution concludes.
DeLay is scheduled to appear in court on Friday morning, where he is supposed to enter a plea and his attorneys intend to press for his trial to be shifted away from this relatively liberal Texas community. They also are going to ask the judge, an elected Democrat, to recuse himself, on grounds that he contributed to organizations hostile to DeLay.
DeLay's appearance at the sheriff's office at 12:15 p.m. appeared to be carefully orchestrated by his attorneys to elude direct observation by reporters. It was over in half an hour, after he posted a $10,000 bond. The sheriff's office promptly released his mug shot, which showed a grinning politician in a gray suit and red tie, wearing the small lapel pin used to identify members of Congress.
DeLay was driven to the booking directly from Houston airport, where he had arrived in a private jet with two security guards provided by the U.S. Capitol Hill Police. A third police officer had arrived in Houston the previous evening. Kevin Madden, DeLay's spokesman in Washington, said he did not immediately know whose jet it was.
Ordinarily, such police escorts are given only to House leaders, a rank that DeLay relinquished after being indicted in separate charges on Sept. 28 and Oct. 3. But Madden said the police had made a "threat-based assessment" that DeLay still warranted such protection only a few weeks after resigning his post.
Sgt. Jessica Gissubel, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police, confirmed that DeLay has kept his security detail on the recommendation of the police chief, but added that she was unaware of any specific threat against the congressman.
Sheriff's Deputy Lisa Martinez in Houston said she did not witness the booking procedure for DeLay, but that in all such cases, the accused are taken into a secure area without their lawyers, photographed and then fingerprinted by an inkless machine.
In a telephone interview, DeLay's lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said he had arranged for the booking to be conducted in Houston after being informed by the sheriff in DeLay's home county of Fort Bend that there were about "30 news trucks out there. I didn't want there to be this media blitz."
Staff writer Amy Goldstein and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report. Lee reported from Washington.
Tom DeLay posted a $10,000 bond and was released.