As Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) struggles to contain the fallout from his indictment Wednesday, he and his aides have mounted a multipronged offensive to win his legal case, beat back political attacks from Democrats, reclaim his post as Majority Leader and lay the groundwork for his re-election in November 2006.
But to accomplish these sometimes conflicting goals, DeLay needs to play to different audiences with different priorities — and it’s not yet clear that he can do it, even though his staunchest critics don’t discount the possibility that he will find a way.
DeLay, who has never expressed any love for reporters or the press in general, has launched a bold and aggressive media offensive that’s designed to allow him to loudly proclaim his innocence to all those who will listen, including his colleagues in the House GOP Conference and his constituents back home in Texas’ 22nd district. Members have reportedly come up to DeLay and praised him for being open and thus taking some heat off them to answer questions about his situation, DeLay allies said.
“It’s very important that Members see this,” said Kevin Madden, the communications director in the House Majority Leader’s office. Madden is still handling DeLay’s press duties, although DeLay stepped down from the post on Wednesday. “It’s very important that the people of the 22nd district see this. Mr. DeLay feels very strongly about it, and he wants everyone to know he is innocent.”
On Wednesday, just after the announcement of his indictment by a Texas grand jury on a criminal charge of conspiring to violate Texas election law, DeLay held two media availabilities for Capitol Hill reporters, though he did not take questions from reporters at either event.
The Texas Republican used those appearances to claim his innocence on the conspiracy charge brought by the grand jury, as well as to launch a blistering attack on Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, calling Earle a “partisan fanatic” and worse.
“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. House Democrats lost five seats in 2004 thanks to the DeLay-backed redistricting plan.
Earle has been conducting a nearly three-year investigation into the role of corporate money in the 2002 state legislative races. DeLay and two of his political associates, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, are accused of criminally conspiring to violate Texas’ ban on using corporate campaign donations in state legislative races by routing $190,000 from Texans for Republican Majority political action committee, which he helped found, to an arm of the Republican National Committee in September 2002. That RNC unit then gave the same amount to seven GOP state candidates in hard money two weeks later.
All three men have denied wrongdoing, although Colyandro, Ellis and Warren RoBold, another DeLay associate, face additional allegations of violating state election laws.
Following his Capitol Hill press conferences, DeLay rushed to do interviews on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, during which he repeated his personal denunciations of Earle, in addition to portraying himself as a victim of concerted Democratic effort to undermine his political standing.
DeLay also held a conference call that day with local reporters in Texas, followed by a spate of radio interviews on national and Lone Star State stations.
On Thursday, even as he was shifting operations from the Majority Leader’s suite in the Capitol to his personal office in the Cannon House Office Building, DeLay kept up the media blitz with more TV and radio interviews, which included additional appearances on Fox, a session with the Christian Broadcasting Network and more radio interviews.
On Friday morning, after meeting with House GOP leaders, DeLay flew to Texas and held a rally with 200 to 250 supporters at the Hess Club in Houston. He then returned to Washington, D.C., to prep for an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” although all the networks were pushing hard to get him on their shows.
One senior House GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Texas Republican is doing the exact opposite of what most politicians would do when they find themselves hit with ethics or criminal charges, which is to hide behind a wall of lawyers and aides in a bid to lower their public profile.
“DeLay is really in attack mode,” said this staffer, who noted such a posture was “the only way DeLay knows how to deal with anything — attack, attack, attack.”
But in a sign of how hard it may become for DeLay to balance all the demands pulling at him, DeLay appeared to contradict himself on the question of whether he was ever invited to appear before the grand jury by Earle. On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” DeLay insisted that he had not, although the Houston Chronicle quoted one of his lawyers and the foreman of the grand jury as saying that he had.
This episode highlights the risk for DeLay making public statements about his case before the trial even begins.
“It is very unusual for someone who has been indicted to do interviews or speak out publicly without a phalanx of lawyers to screen everything,” said a Republican lawyer close to the case. “But this shows you how weak Earle’s indictment really is.”
Earle has declined to publicly counter DeLay’s barrage of personal attacks, including an accusation that Earle was pressured by Democrats in Texas and Washington to seek an indictment of DeLay.
An Earle spokesman said his boss would not comment beyond the statements he made on Wednesday, citing the ongoing investigation. In Wednesday’s media appearance, Earle portrayed himself as a law-enforcement official who is just doing his job.
DeLay also finds himself in a difficult position legally in relation to his co-defendants. He may move to separate his case from those of Colyandro, Ellis and RoBold, said sources close to the Texas Republican. While that tactic could benefit his criminal case, the separation could create a rift between the defendants — one that could be exploited by Earle as he attempts to play each against the others.
DeLay and his new lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin of the Houston firm DeGuerin Dickson & Hennessy, want to exercise a provision in state law that allows defendants to seek a speedy trial. DeLay is to have his initial court appearance before a state judge in Austin on Oct. 21, and both DeLay and DeGuerin have stated publicly that they would like to see the case disposed of by the end of this year. (DeGuerin did not return calls seeking comment for this article.)
However, Colyandro and Ellis have also been indicted on separate charges of violating Texas election law as it relates to corporate campaign donations, and their legal advisers are predicting a long battle with Earle’s office. DeLay cannot afford politically to take part in a long, drawn-out case, said a Republican legal expert.
“DeLay needs to get this thing done as fast as possible,” the lawyer said. “It’s the only way he can get back to being Majority Leader.”
Joseph Turner, Colyandro’s lawyer, said it may be “many months to a year” before the start of his client’s trial on money laundering charges, which were filed in September 2004.
Colyandro and Ellis are appealing an Aug. 9 ruling by State District Judge Robert Perkins — the same judge who will hear DeLay’s case — that Earle’s prosecution of them on those charges could proceed. Perkins must now certify that his original ruling can be appealed before it goes to a higher court. If he does so, then any finding by the higher court could then end up before the Court of Criminal Appeals — a separate court that is the highest for criminal cases in the Lone Star State.
Turner believes that is a distinct possibility, considering the severity of the penalties that Colyandro and the other defendants face. “I don’t think this is going to happen very quickly,” said Turner.
Colyandro is scheduled to appear before Perkins on Oct. 14, a week before DeLay’s court date, and Turner speculated that Perkins could combine all the charges against DeLay, Colyandro, Ellis, RoBold, TRMPAC and other defendants into one case — something DeLay would no doubt oppose. If that happens, DeLay’s hopes of a quick decision would be dashed, and so would his opportunity to return as Majority Leader any time soon.
Yet even if DeLay is victorious in the Texas courts, he still faces a potential investigation by the House ethics committee regarding overseas trips that he and his staff took with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The House ethics probe, which DeLay requested after reports of his trips with Abramoff were made public, has yet to begin, and it may not start in earnest until next year due to bitter infighting this session between Democrats and Republicans over the makeup of and rules of the ethics committee.
Abramoff, who was indicted in mid-August in Miami on federal mail and wire fraud charges, may also face additional charges in a federal investigation of his business dealings with American Indian tribes. Former DeLay aides such as Michael Scanlon worked with Abramoff, and there has been widespread speculation about whether DeLay or other lawmakers may get caught up in that case.
With all that as a backdrop, DeLay faces his toughest re-election bid in years, and possibly ever. In the 2003 re-redistricting that he engineered, DeLay gave up some of his district’s Republican-leaning areas in order to strengthen the districts of other Republicans. After winning with only 55 percent of the vote in November 2004, DeLay will face a challenge from former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) next year.
Those closest to DeLay, both Members and aides, believe he has roughly a three-month window if he wants to once again be Majority Leader. At that time, potential aspirants for the post, such as temporary Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), may be able to exert so much pressure on Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that Hastert is forced to call leadership elections — something that several Republicans, such as Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), are already urging him to do.
“DeLay has about three months,” said one senior GOP lawmaker. “If he hasn’t resolved this Texas thing by then, then there’s no way he ever becomes Majority Leader again.” This Republican added: “Time is not Tom’s friend right now.”