Washington House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted by a Texas grand jury Wednesday on a charge of conspiring to violate political fundraising laws, forcing him to temporarily step aside from his GOP post. He is the highest-ranking member of Congress to face criminal prosecution.
A defiant DeLay said he had done nothing wrong and denounced the Democratic prosecutor who pursued the case as a "partisan fanatic." He said, "This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history. It's a sham."
Nonetheless, DeLay's temporary departure and the prospect of a criminal trial for one of the Republicans' most visible leaders reverberated throughout the GOP-run Congress, which was already struggling with ethics questions surrounding its Senate leader.
Republicans quickly moved to fill the void, while voicing polite support for DeLay. Speaker Dennis Hastert named Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt to take over most of DeLay's leadership duties.
Politics not involved
Ronnie Earle, the Democratic prosecutor in Austin who led the investigation, denied politics was involved. "Our job is to prosecute abuses of power and to bring those abuses to the public," he said. He has noted previously that he has prosecuted many Democrats in the past.
DeLay, 58, was indicted on a single felony count of conspiring with two political associates. The two previously had been charged with the same conspiracy count. They are John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who leads DeLay's national political committee.
DeLay's successor, Blunt, also has a connection with Ellis, federal records show.
Since May 2003, Blunt's political action committee, the Rely On Your Beliefs Fund, has paid at least $88,000 to Ellis' firm, the J.W. Ellis Co., for political consulting and fundraising. The spending figures were compiled from government records by the nonpartisan Political Money Line, a campaign finance tracking service.
The 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.
The grand jury accused the men of conspiring to route corporate donations from DeLay's Texas committee to the Republican Party in Washington, then returning the money back to Texas legislative candidates. It was a scheme intended to evade a state law outlawing corporate donations going to candidates, the indictment said.
The indictment also mentioned another Republican figure, President Bush's campaign political director Terry Nelson, though it did not charge him with any wrongdoing.
The grand jury alleged Nelson received the money - along with a list of Texas lawmakers who were to get donations - from the Texas committee while working at the Republican National Committee. Nelson did not return calls to his office seeking comment.
DeLay and others conspired to "engage in conduct that would constitute the offense of knowingly making a political contribution in violation" of Texas law, the indictment charged. However, it did not specify how DeLay was involved.
DeLay, whose conduct on separate issues was criticized by the House ethics committee last year, was unrelenting in his criticism of Earle. He suggested the district attorney had promised not to prosecute him and then changed course under pressure from Democrats and criticism from a newspaper in Texas.
The majority leader derided Earle as an "unabashed partisan zealot" and a "rogue district attorney."
However, the grand jury's foreman, William Gibson, told The Associated Press that Earle didn't pressure members to indict DeLay. "Ronnie Earle didn't indict him. The grand jury indicted him," Gibson said in an interview at his home.
Gibson, 76, a retired sheriff's deputy, said of DeLay: "He's probably doing a good job. I don't have anything against him. Just something happened."
DeLay's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, immediately sought to protect the leader from further embarrassment, even as they pressed to learn the evidence against their client. "What we're trying to avoid is Ronnie Earle having him taken down in handcuffs and fingerprinted and photographed. That's uncalled-for, and I don't think that's going to happen," DeGuerin said.
DeLay got some polite support from the White House, where press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush still considered DeLay "a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people."
"I think the president's view is that we need to let the legal process work," the spokesman said.
By any measure, DeLay's indictment was historic. A Senate historian, Donald Ritchie, said after researching the subject, "There's never been a member of Congress in a leadership position who has been indicted."
Two others members of Congress have been indicted since 1996. Former Rep. William Janklow, R-S.D., was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to 100 days in prison after his car struck and killed a motorcyclist in 2003. Former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted on charges from a 2001 indictment accusing him of racketeering and accepting bribes.
Democrats speak out
Democrats, who have long accused DeLay of ethical impropriety, made much of the indictment, which came just days after federal authorities began a criminal inquiry into Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist over his sale of stock in a family-founded hospital company.
DeLay's indictment "is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, setting up Democrats' pitch to win back Congress in 2006.
Criminal conspiracy is a Texas 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 forced DeLay to step down under House Republican rules.
Texas law prohibits corporate money from being used to advocate the election or defeat of candidates; the money can be used only for administrative expenses.
The indictment alleged that the DeLay-founded 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 from that same account 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 receive in donations.
The indictment, which included a copy of the check, came on the final day of the grand jury's term, following earlier indictments of TRMPAC, three political associates - including the two indicted Wednesday - several corporate donors and a Texas business association.