What's the Deal With the Tom DeLay Indictment?

Getting a grip on the Hammer and that criminal conspiracy charge

On Wednesday, a Travis County, Texas, grand jury transformed national power-politics in Washington, handing down an indictment of the powerful House majority leader, Tom DeLay (R-TX). DeLay, 58, was forced to resign his majority leader position, the second most powerful in the House, after he was indicted on one count of criminal conspiracy. The case alleges that DeLay and two political associates laundered corporate contributions to a now defunct Texas political action committee they formed, Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC), to benefit Texas GOP candidates, in violation of state campaign finance laws.

A press release from the Travis County District Attorney's office summarized the charge against DeLay as follows:

The indictment charges DeLay with conspiring with [James] Ellis and [John] Colyandro to violate the Texas Election Code by contributing corporate money to certain candidates for the Texas Legislature. It describes a scheme whereby corporate, or "soft" money, was sent to the Republican National Committee where it was exchanged for "hard" money, or money raised from individuals, and sent to those candidates. Criminal conspiracy is a State Jail Felony punishable by six months to two years in a State Jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

Specifically, D.A. Ronnie Earle has accused TRMPAC of receiving $190,000 in corporate donations, sending the money to an arm of the Republican National Committee for the express purpose of having it sent back in the form of campaign contributions to seven Texas GOP candidates running in the 2002 state elections. “The corporate fundraising," CBS reported earlier this year, based on an interview with Earle, "was done to elect Republicans to the Texas legislature so they could redistrict the state and ensure that more Republicans would be elected to the house in Washington."

DeLay's ethical troubles are legendary—as is his prowess at throwing a wrench into the institutions that could hold him accountable. According to Common Cause, DeLay was admonished by unanimous votes of the House Ethics Committee a record four times, for matters concerning DeLay's role in threatening an electronics trade group for not putting a Republican at its head, for "creating at least the 'appearance' that Westar Energy executives were provided special access at a West Virginia golf retreat as a result of $25,000 in corporate contributions to Texans for a Republican Majority," "for using government resources in a 2004 Texas redistricting undertaking," and "for offering to endorse Rep. Nick Smith's (R-MI) son . . . on the House floor in exchange for Smith's vote in favor of the Medicare/prescription drug bill." In April, the New York Times reported that DeLay's "wife and daughter . . . have been paid more than $500,000 since 2001 by Mr. DeLay's political action and campaign committees, according to a detailed review of disclosure statements filed with the Federal Election Commission."

Furthermore, in March, the Washington Post reported that, "The Senate Finance Committee yesterday opened an investigation into allegations that lobbyist Jack Abramoff used nonprofit organizations to pay for a variety of improper activities, including overseas trips for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) and another Republican lawmaker." A month later, the Post reported that a third DeLay trip, a "six day trip to Moscow in 1997 was underwritten by business interests lobbying in support of the Russian government," via GOP lobbyist and close DeLay associate Jack Abramoff.

With such troubles mounting, last January, DeLay's Republican supporters engineered a rule change in the House ethics committee that would automatically throw out ethics complaints when the committee was deadlocked. "Democrats rebelled," the Washington Post reported, "saying Republicans were trying to protect DeLay from further ethics investigations." The rule change came on the heels of a purging of the House ethics committee of three members who had voted in the past to admonish DeLay, including its chairman Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO).

True to his trademark aggressive style that has him nicknamed the Hammer, DeLay, who has represented Texas' 22nd district in Washington since 1984 and who has been a top fundraiser for the GOP, responded to the charges with guns blazing against the Texas district attorney who indicted him, Earle.

"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 said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. "This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history. It's a sham and Mr. Earle knows it."

It's worth remembering that DeLay led the charge for Bill Clinton to be impeached back in 1998.

Meeting in emergency session Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans voted unanimously to elect Missouri Republican Roy Blunt as their next majority leader, ABC news reported. But in an unusual arrangement perhaps designed to keep the door open for DeLay to eventually return, Blunt was to share majority leader duties with California representative David Dreier and Virginia Republican Congressman Eric Cantor.

"It's a mixed blessing for the Democrats," Washington political analyst Chris Nelson, author of the insider Nelson Report, tells the Voice. "DeLay was such a controversial figure, that he served as a rallying point for the Democrats. Obviously [House speaker Dennis] Hastert is scared to death. He's adopted to cut the baby in half" by having DeLay's majority leader job split between Blunt, Dreier, and Cantor.

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