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DeLay Indictment Roils House

Leader Vows to Fight Charge by Texas D.A.

A defiant House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on Wednesday denied breaking any Texas law following his indictment as part of a criminal conspiracy to evade a state ban on using corporate campaign donations during the 2002 state legislative races.

The powerful Texas Republican predicted that he ultimately would be exonerated, despite having to step down from his Majority Leader post, and he blamed a “rogue district attorney” in Austin for ginning up a felony charge against him.

Dick DeGuerin, a Texas criminal-defense attorney recently retained by DeLay, said his client would seek an immediate trial on the conspiracy charges in an attempt to clear his name, possibly before the end of the year.

No details were available at press time on when DeLay would be arraigned in Austin, and Travis Country District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is leading the investigation into DeLay, did not answer questions on the issue when asked by reporters on Wednesday afternoon.

DeLay, a fixture in the House GOP leadership and a force in Washington, D.C., politics for more than a decade, savaged Earle for conducting what he described as a political witch hunt. DeLay claimed that Earle’s nearly three-year investigation into the 2002 state races was in response to DeLay’s successful plan to wrest control of the Texas Congressional delegation from Democrats. Earle himself is a Democrat.

“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,” DeLay told reporters on Wednesday. “This act is the product of a coordinated, pre-meditated campaign of political retribution — the all-too-predictable result of a vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic.”

DeLay, who will keep his seat in Congress while he contests the conspiracy charge, added: “This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history.”

DeLay could be sentenced to as much as two years in jail if he is found guilty of the criminal conspiracy charge. He also could be fined as much as $100,000.

With DeLay already facing a potential investigation by the House ethics committee over his relationship with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff — who himself was indicted on federal mail and wire fraud charges last month — DeLay and other GOP leaders tried to paint him as a victim of a long-running campaign by Democrats to undermine the majority party.

“Democrats resent Tom DeLay because he routinely defeats them, both politically and legislatively,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), one of DeLay’s closest confidants in the House.

Republicans also wasted little time in beginning their own campaign to discredit Earle.

DeLay’s allies privately suggested that they would seek retribution against Earle, although DeLay himself will have no role in that effort. Charges of prosecutorial misconduct may be lodged against Earle, and a public-relations effort to discredit Earle personally had already begun on Wednesday, with GOP insiders repeatedly pointing out that Earle unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in the midst of the 1994 Senate race in Texas.

“Everything will be in play,” said one high-ranking House Republican aide. “We will throw everything we can at Ronnie Earle.”

In his own press conference in Austin following the surprising announcement of the DeLay indictment, Earle said he was just doing his duty as a law-enforcement officer and that he had no personal animosity against DeLay.

“Our job is to prosecute abuses of power,” Earle said. “Our job it to enforce the laws as written.”

Earle has been investigating whether DeLay and other Texas Republicans illegally used hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate funds to help win control the Texas Legislature during the 2001-02 election cycle. That victory helped propel House Republicans to pick up five of Texas’ seats in Congress last November and further cemented DeLay’s reputation as the power behind the throne in the House.

DeLay and two of his political operatives — John Colyandro and Jim Ellis — were indicted on Wednesday by a Texas grand jury for criminal conspiracy to make a corporate political contribution in violation of the state’s corporate donation ban.

In the indictment, DeLay, Colyandro and Ellis were charged with entering into an agreement with one another or Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee to “knowingly” make a political contribution that violated state law. DeLay served on TRMPAC’s advisory board, while Colyandro was executive director of the group. Ellis runs Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, DeLay’s federal leadership PAC.

The indictment also mentioned another prominent Republican, Terry Nelson, who was President Bush’s campaign political director, as being involved in the transaction. Nelson was not charged him with any crime.

Ellis, Colyandro and Warren Robold, a TRMPAC fundraiser, were first indicted in September 2004 on criminal charges of money laundering and illegally accepting campaign contributions from corporate donors. Ellis and Colyandro were then re-indicted on those charges this month, and were also hit with a criminal conspiracy charge at that time.

The previous indictments against Colyandro and Ellis cover alleged violations of the state’s election law, while the charges unveiled on Wednesday come under the state’s criminal statute.

Under Texas’ penal code, someone can participate in a criminal conspiracy if he or she “agrees with one or more persons that they or one or more of them engage in conduct that would constitute” a felony offense, and that this individual or others “performs an overt act in pursuance of the agreement” violate Texas laws.

At the heart of Wednesday’s indictment was a September 2002 donation by TRMPAC to the Republican National State Elections Committee, an arm of the Republican National Committee. TRMPAC, which was founded by DeLay in 2001, made the donation to the RNSEC in the form of soft money.

On Oct. 4, 2002, RNSEC distributed $190,000 in hard-money checks to seven GOP candidates in Texas legislative races. Earle charged that this was an attempt by TRMPAC to illegally circumvent Texas’ soft-money ban.

A Sept. 11, 2002, e-mail from Colyandro to TRMPAC’s accountant requested that the account send a blank check to Ellis in order for the group to make a soft-money donation to the RNC. The $190,000 donation to the RNSEC was officially made two days later.

GOP officials have claimed that the fact that the RNSEC gave $190,000, the exact amount it got from TRMPAC, was pure coincidence, while also pointing out that hard-soft money swaps were perfectly legal under both state and federal law at that time. Soft money was banned from use in federal campaigns following the 2002 elections.

Overall, TRMPAC took in roughly $600,000 in corporate donations during the 2001-02 cycle, although those contributions were never reported to Texas authorities. A Texas judge, ruling in a civil lawsuit brought by five Lone Star Democratic candidates, decreed in late May that TRMPAC should have declared $532,000 of that total to the state election board, and awarded $196,000 in damages to those Democrats.

Since Earle’s investigation began, DeLay has stated that he had no knowledge of the day-to-day operations of TRMPAC, although he acknowledged raising money for the group.

Earle and DeLay met privately on Aug. 17 to discuss the TRMPAC probe, a meeting that both sides describe as cordial, and it appeared for a time that DeLay had evaded any indictment in Earle’s probe.

Earle and his investigators believe that TRMPAC violated the Texas’ ban on using soft money for electoral races by illegally expanding the definition of “administrative expenses” under which such funds were allowed to be expended. TRMPAC used soft money for polling, political mailings and telephone banks that prosecutors and Democrats claim directly helped GOP state candidates.

Thanks in part to TRMPAC’s fundraising efforts, as well as those of the Texas Association of Business, which has also been indicted, Republicans were able to gain complete control of the Texas Legislature following the 2002 elections, the first time that has happened since Reconstruction. More than $2 million in corporate funds were raised by the two groups that cycle.

A DeLay ally, Tom Craddick, was quickly elected Speaker of the Texas House after the GOP’s victory in November 2002, and Craddick then helped push through a Congressional redistricting map, despite intense Democratic opposition.

DeLay and other Republicans claim that Democratic anger at their 2002 losses, and the subsequent redistricting fight, is behind Earle’s probe.

“Mr. Earle is abusing the power of his office to exact personal revenge for the role I played in the Texas Republican legislative campaign in 2002 and my advocacy for a new, fair, and constitutional congressional map for our state in 2003,” DeLay said on Wednesday. “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.”

DeLay, who has been admonished by House ethics on four occasions for transgressions of the chamber’s rules, has long been a target of both Democrats and government watchdog groups, all of whom seemed to revel in Wednesday’s shocking development.

“Representative DeLay has been the king of a Washington-lobbyist, influence-money approach for governing America. Today’s criminal indictment of Representative DeLay may also turn out to be a fundamental indictment of DeLay’s ‘pay to play’ philosophy,” said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 in a statement.

“The criminal indictment in Texas also serves to make clear again that the House Ethics Committee must move promptly to begin an investigation of the multiple serious ethics issues that have been raised regarding Representative DeLay,” Wertheimer continued.