- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2005

A Texas judge yesterday threw out a campaign finance conspiracy charge against Rep. Tom DeLay, but ruled that the prosecutors’ money laundering charge should go forward.

The ruling means Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican, will not be able immediately to regain the House majority leader’s post he gave up after his Sept. 28 indictment, and some Republicans said it means that House Republicans will have to elect new leaders.

Prosecutor Ronnie Earle has 15 days to appeal Judge Pat Priest’s ruling, and the judge said he is not likely to move forward on Mr. DeLay’s case until after the 15 days have elapsed.

Despite remaining in political limbo, Mr. DeLay’s camp called the ruling a victory.

“The court’s decision to dismiss a portion of Ronnie Earle’s manufactured and flawed case against Mr. DeLay underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were,” said his spokesman, Kevin Madden.

But Democrats said Mr. DeLay is not off the hook.

“This is not a vindication, Congressman DeLay still faces very serious criminal charges,” said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Mr. Earle’s office issued a written statement, saying they had not decided whether to appeal.

Mr. DeLay had no comment last night at a previously scheduled Houston fundraiser attended by Vice President Dick Cheney.

One Republican House member who asked not to be quoted said the combination of corruption charges against Republicans is hurting.

“I think it’s disastrous,” the lawmaker said. “People are worried with so much out there already, they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

He mentioned other ongoing investigations, such as the Justice Department’s look at former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Mr. DeLay took a golfing trip to Scotland in 2000 with Mr. Abramoff and has faced charges that the lobbyist paid for the trip — a violation of ethics rules. Mr. DeLay has said that while majority leader, he did not break House ethics rules or the law.

The charges all stem from a political action committee that Mr. DeLay helped found to assist Republicans in Texas.

Prosecutors said Mr. DeLay was involved in a conspiracy to take corporate money — the use of which is limited in Texas elections — send it to an arm of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in Washington and have the RNC send back the “laundered” money that could be spent more broadly under Texas law.

In his 12-page ruling, Judge Priest agreed with Mr. DeLay’s lawyers that Texas law didn’t cover the conspiracy charge in 2002, the time when prosecutors say Mr. DeLay and two co-defendants siphoned $190,000 of corporate money into state elections.

But Judge Priest said prosecutors can still push charges of money laundering or conspiracy to commit money laundering if they can prove the three men solicited corporate money “with the express intent of converting those funds” for use by Texas candidates or if prosecutors can prove the three men sent corporate money to the Republican National State Elections Committee “with an agreement that funds of the same amount” would be sent back to Texas candidates.

“The money would have become ‘dirty money’ at the point that it began to be held with the prohibited intent,” the judge wrote.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said the ruling means there will be leadership elections in January, because Mr. DeLay won’t be able to resolve his status by then.

He said the interim leadership team, led by acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, will have to prove their leadership ability in the final two weeks of the session by pushing for deep spending cuts.

“I think a lot of us are waiting to see what happens in the next weeks,” he said. “There’s an increasing realization that our ability to rein in spending impacts how we’re perceived in our own district. Those numbers aren’t good right now, and we’ve got to turn it around.”

But Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said questions about new leadership elections are several steps too early.

He said many of those pushing for elections don’t necessarily want new leaders, but are seeking to distance themselves from Democrat charges of “a culture of corruption.”

“You’ve got members who would like to have an election, but most of them want to have it in some cases for home-district reasons,” he said.

The Georgian said the ruling is a good sign for Mr. DeLay.

“This is what he’s been saying — a number of these charges are simply political and trumped up, and the judge throwing out one is indicative of that,” Mr. Kingston said. “I’m sorry he’s not completely out of the woods, but the agenda he was so instrumental in setting in motion is moving on.”

Mr. DeLay has said he will run for re-election to his House seat next year, but a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll suggests that will be an uphill battle.

According to the poll, 49 percent of voters in his district are ready to support a Democrat, while just 36 percent say they will support Mr. DeLay. And just 37 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of him.

• Hugh Aynesworth contributed to this report.

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