Washington, D.C A Texas grand jury on Wednesday charged Rep. Tom DeLay and two political associates with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme, forcing the House majority leader to temporarily relinquish his post. A defiant DeLay insisted he was innocent and called the prosecutor a "partisan fanatic."
"I have done nothing wrong ... I am innocent," DeLay told a Capitol Hill news conference in which he criticized the Texas prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, repeatedly. DeLay called Earle a "unabashed partisan zealot," and "fanatic," and described the charges as "one of the weakest and most baseless indictments in American history."
The indictment accused DeLay, 58, of a conspiracy to violate Texas election law, which prohibits use of corporate donations to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. The alleged scheme worked in a roundabout way, with the donations going to a DeLay-founded political committee, then to the Republican National Committee and eventually to GOP candidates in Texas
Indicted with DeLay were two of his associates, John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political committee.
In Austin, Texas, Earle told reporters, "Our job is to prosecute abuses of power and to bring those abuses to the public."
DeLay is the first House leader to be indicted while in office in at least a century, according to congressional historians.
"I have notified the speaker that I will temporarily step aside from my position as majority leader pursuant to rules of the House Republican Conference and the actions of the Travis County district attorney today," DeLay said in a statement.
The Republican rank and file met privately a few hours after the indictment was issued to consider filling the vacancy in the leadership ranks.
Several GOP officials said that Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., initially intended to recommend to that Rep. David Dreier of California step into the duties, with additional responsibilities going to the GOP whip, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri. These officials later cautioned that Hastert's plans could change.
Blunt said he was confident DeLay would be cleared of the allegations and return to his leadership job. "Unfortunately, Tom DeLay's effectiveness as Majority Leader is the best explanation for what happened in Texas today," Blunt said.
Criminal conspiracy is a state felony punishable by six months to two years in a state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. The potential two-year sentence forces DeLay to step down under House Republican rules.
At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said the president still considers DeLay - a fellow Texan - 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," McClellan said. "I think the president's view is that we need to let the legal process work."
The indictment puts the Republicans - who control the White House, Senate and House - on the defensive. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., also is fending off question of ethical improprieties. Federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission are looking into Frist's sale of stock in HCA Inc., the hospital operating company founded by his family.
Less than a week ago, a former White House official was arrested in the investigation of Jack Abramoff, a high-powered lobbyist and fundraiser.
The indictment accused DeLay of a conspiracy to "knowingly make a political contribution" in violation of Texas law outlawing corporate contributions. It alleged that DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee accepted $155,000 from companies, including Sears Roebuck, and placed the money in an account.
The PAC then wrote a $190,000 check to an arm of the Republican National Committee and provided the committee a document with the names of Texas State House candidates and the amounts they were supposed to received in donations.
The indictment included a copy of the check.
"The defendants entered into an agreement with each other or with TRMPAC (Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee) to make a political contribution in violation of the Texas election code," says the four-page indictment. "The contribution was made directly to the Republican National Committee within 60 days of a general election."
The indictment against the second-ranking, and most assertive Republican leader came on the final day of the grand jury's term. It followed earlier indictments of a state political action committee founded by DeLay and three of his political associates.
In defending his action against complaints that it was politically drived, Earle told a Texas news conference: "Our job is to prosecute abuses of power."
The grand jury action is expected to have immediate consequences in the House, where DeLay is largely responsible for winning passage of the Republican legislative program.
Democrats have kept up a crescendo of criticism of DeLay's ethics, citing three times last year that the House ethics committee admonished DeLay for his conduct.
"The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom Delay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Democratic chairman Howard Dean cited the problems of DeLay, Frist and Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff at the center of questions about the leak of a CIA operative's name.
"The Republican leadership in Washington is now spending more time answering questions about ethical misconduct than doing the people's business," Dean said.
At the White House, McClellan bristled at a question about Democratic claims that Republicans have grown arrogant in their use of power and flaunt rules after years of controlling the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.
McClellan said the Republican Party has made policy that has improved the lives of Americans, and the White House stands by that record.
"We can sit here and try to rush to judgment, but I don't think that's a fair thing to do," McClellan said. "We need to let the legal process work."
However, DeLay retains his seat representing Texas' 22nd congressional district, suburbs southwest of Houston. He denies that he committed any crime.
As a sign of loyalty to DeLay after the grand jury returned indictments against three of his associates, House Republicans last November repealed a rule requiring any of their leaders to step aside if indicted. The rule was reinstituted in January after lawmakers returned to Washington from the holidays fearing the repeal might create a backlash from voters.
DeLay is the center of an ethics swirl in Washington. The 11-term congressman was admonished last year by the House ethics committee on three separate issues and is the center of a political storm this year over lobbyists paying his and other lawmakers' tabs for expensive travel abroad.
Wednesday's indictment stems from a plan DeLay helped set in motion in 2001 to help Republicans win control of the Texas House in the 2002 elections for the first time since Reconstruction.
A state political action committee he created, Texans for a Republican Majority, was indicted earlier this month on charges of accepting corporate contributions for use in state legislative races. Texas law prohibits corporate money from being used to advocate the election or defeat of candidates; it is allowed only for administrative expenses.
With GOP control of the Texas legislature, DeLay then engineered a redistricting plan that enabled the GOP take six Texas seats in the U.S. House away from Democrats - including one lawmaker switching parties - in 2004 and build its majority in Congress.