- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Texas grand jury yesterday indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and two political associates in a suspected campaign-finance scheme, forcing the House’s second-ranking Republican and its most assertive member to step down from his leadership post.

The four-page criminal conspiracy indictment, handed up on the final day of the grand jury’s term, also targets John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by Mr. DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads the majority leader’s national political committee.

Mr. DeLay, the first House leader to be indicted while in office in at least a century, categorically denied any wrongdoing yesterday and bluntly accused the Democratic district attorney of Travis County, Texas, Ronnie Earle, of pursuing the case for political motives.

“This morning in an act of blatant political partisanship, a rogue district attorney in Travis County, Texas, named Ronnie Earle, charged me with one count of criminal conspiracy, a reckless charge wholly unsupported by the facts,” Mr. DeLay said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history.

“It’s a sham, and Mr. Earle knows it,” he said. “It’s a charge that cannot hold up even under the most glancing scrutiny. This act is the product of a coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution, the all too predictable result of a vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic.”

Mr. DeLay accused the district attorney of abusing the power of the district attorney’s office to exact personal revenge for the role the majority leader played in the Texas Republican legislative campaign in 2002 and for his advocacy for a new congressional map for Texas in 2003.

“As it turned out, those efforts were successful,” he said. “Over the course of this long and bitter political battle, it became clear that the retribution for our success would be ferocious. Today, that retribution is being exacted.”

Mr. DeLay said he had “notified the speaker that I will temporarily step aside from my position as majority leader pursuant to rules of the House Republican Conference.”

House Republicans quickly named Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri as majority leader, a move Mr. Blunt called temporary.

Mr. Earle was not available for comment, but told reporters in Austin, Texas, that his office prosecutes “abuses of power” and seeks to “bring those abuses to the public.” In defending the indictment, he said he has prosecuted many Democrats in the past.

“That kind of attack is what they believe of themselves,” Mr. Earle said. “I don’t know what else they would say.”

Mr. DeLay’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said he would seek a trial in the case before the end of the year.

He also said he would try to prevent his client from being “taken down in handcuffs, photographed and fingerprinted. That’s uncalled for.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the indictment the “latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said the Republican leadership in Washington “is now spending more time answering questions about ethical misconduct than doing the people’s business.”

According to the indictment, Mr. DeLay conspired with the two co-defendants to make a political contribution in violation of Texas state law, which outlaws corporate contributions.

The indictment said Mr. DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC) accepted $155,000 from companies, placed the money in an account and then wrote a $190,000 check to an arm of the Republican National Committee, effectively laundering the money to allow its use in state races under Texas law.

That donation, the indictment said, included a document that listed the names of Texas State House candidates and the amounts they were supposed to receive.

The indictment said the defendants entered into an agreement with each other or with TRMPAC to make a political contribution “in violation of the Texas election code.”

But Jan Baran, a Washington-based Republican campaign finance attorney, said it is “unclear what exactly DeLay’s role was in” the suspected conspiracy, pointing out that the indictment names no specific acts by him.

“The conspiracy that is described pertains solely to Ellis and Colyandro,” Mr. Baran said. “To get DeLay, assuming the money swapping was illegal, you have to prove that he knew what was going on and that he engaged in an overt act toward that alleged money swapping.”

The grand jury took no action against several persons who, in addition to Mr. DeLay, sit on the committee’s board, including state House Speaker Tom Craddick; Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business; and state Reps. Dianne Delisi and Beverly Woolley.

A grand jury meets in secret, hearing only the evidence a prosecutor wishes, and an investigation’s target has no right to rebut any evidence or present his own case.

Mr. Baran said another question the indictment raises is whether donating corporate money to a national party that then makes donations to candidates from other accounts violates any law.

“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. Then the question is would the Texas PACs contributions be made at all but for the corporate money, and that’s where the tie-in and alleged laundering comes in,” he said.

“Circumstantially, it is alleged that Ellis and Colyandro took the check to the RNC and the money was donated on the condition that the RNC would make otherwise lawful contributions to those Texas candidates. The issue then becomes ‘is that illegal?’ Is it illegal to make what would be an otherwise lawful contribution on the condition that you receive corporate money and put it somewhere else?” he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush still considers Mr. DeLay a friend and an effective leader in Congress.

“Congressman DeLay is a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people,” Mr. McClellan said. “I think the president’s view is that we need to let the legal process work.”

Mr. Blunt, Missouri Republican, said he was “confident that a full examination of the facts in this case” would lead to Mr. DeLay’s exoneration and return.

“Unfortunately, Tom DeLay’s effectiveness as majority leader is the best explanation for what happened in Texas today,” Mr. Blunt said.

Mr. Colyandro, Mr. Ellis and Warren RoBold, another DeLay associate, were indicted last year in a case investigated by Mr. Earle’s office, accused of accepting $600,000 in illegal corporate contributions. They are awaiting trial on those charges.

Criminal conspiracy is a felony in Texas, punishable by six months to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

The formal charge is conspiracy, which points to another claim that DeLay defenders have made against Mr. Earle.

Last year, Travis County prosecutors concluded that only Mr. DeLay’s local prosecutor had the power to pursue an election-code violation against him. But criminal conspiracy, even if the underlying offense is an election-code violation, operates under different jurisdiction rules.

Donald Lambro contributed to this report.

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