- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

About last week’s Texas grand jury indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay: Even for a conspiracy charge, the connection, at least as outlined in the indictment, seems muddled. It wasn’t initially clear the intraparty transaction of funds is illegal.

In a nutshell, the prosecutor, Democrat Ronnie Earle, whom Mr. DeLay calls “an unabashed partisan zealot,” charges Mr. DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee raised $155,000 from some corporations that included Sears, deposited the funds in a bank account, then wrote a check for $190,000 to the Republican National Committee (RNC), ostensibly to help elect some Texas state House candidates.

Mr. Earle maintains this was a money-laundering scheme and suggests Mr. DeLay was at its center. Campaign finance attorneys who pored over the indictment were mystified by the absence of any specificity backing up the charges.

“I read the indictment and it’s unclear what exactly Tom DeLay’s role was in any of this. There is no mention of any acts by him, none,” said Jan Baran, a Washington-based Republican campaign finance attorney.

“The conspiracy that is described in the indictment pertains solely to [DeLay associates] John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, so we have to ask what, if any, role Tom DeLay played in these transactions. Nobody is describing his role in all of this,” Mr. Baran told me. “To get DeLay, assuming the money swapping was illegal, you have to provide that he knew what was going on and that he engaged in an overt act toward that alleged money-swapping,” he said.

In a combative statement last week, Mr. DeLay denied he did anything illegal, saying he has “the facts, the law and the truth on my side.”

Close examination is needed of what, if any, laws were broken. The fund-raising PAC formed by Mr. DeLay (and run by his two associates) raised money to help elect Republican candidates to the Texas legislature in 2002. These funds came from many sources, including donors who gave as individuals within the contribution limits set by law.

This money was apparently mingled in the PAC account with corporate contributions, allowable under Texas law for party administrative expenses. The PAC sent a check from that fund to the RNC in Washington for party-building activities. The RNC, as it does among many states, contributed funds to help Texas Republicans win elections.

The indictment sees all this as an illegal money-laundering. But Mr. Baran and other attorneys I have talked to say that charge is weak at best, because no one can prove corporate money mingled in an account flush with individual contributions was ever used to help elect the Texas candidates.

“The defense is going to be that the corporate money contributed to the Republican Party was not used for the contributions to the candidates. And that’s true,” Mr. Baran said. “Then the question becomes would the Texas contributions be made at all, but for the corporate money. And that’s where the tie-in and alleged laundering comes in.”

It is illegal under Texas law to use corporate money to defeat or elect candidates for public office. But campaign finance law experts note that until the McCain/Feingold finance reform took effect in 2002, it was common in both parties to exchange corporate money for “hard money” from individual donors.

Mr. DeLay says his PAC cleared the transactions with its lawyers and the RNC did likewise. And even The Washington Post, no fan of Mr. DeLay, editorialized that while this looked like an end run around the corporate contribution law, the “more difficult question is whether it was an illegal end run.”

Shadowing this questionable indictment is Ronnie Earle’s reputation as a deeply partisan district attorney with a grudge against Mr. DeLay for engineering the redistricting that swept a half-dozen Democrats out of the U.S. House last year.

In 1993, Mr. Earle indicted Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on similarly flimsy charges that she used state employees for her campaign and personal work. But just before the trial, he tried to drop the charges, after learning documents obtained from Mrs. Hutchinson’s office might not be admissible. The judge refused to drop the case, and the jury exonerated her.

Earlier this year, Mr. Earle spoke at a Democratic fund-raiser where he openly talked about his probe, singling out his targets with sharply worded political attacks. The Houston Chronicle editorialized he “damaged the credibility of his investigation with a stunning display of prosecutorial impropriety.”

As I see it, Ronnie Earle’s motivation in this indictment is purely political — to bring down Tom DeLay — something that will become self-evident as the facts in come fully to light.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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