DeLay Indicted in Finance Probe

Times Staff Writers

Rep. Tom DeLay, one of the country’s most powerful Republicans, was indicted Wednesday by a Texas grand jury on a charge of violating state campaign finance laws. The action forced him to step aside as House majority leader, deepening the GOP’s political woes.

As DeLay proclaimed his innocence, House Republicans selected Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri as temporary majority leader. Party leaders emphasized that they would continue to aggressively pursue their legislative agenda.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 6, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
DeLay indictment -- An article in Thursday’s Section A about the indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) described as “illegal” the campaign contributions that Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other companies made to a political action committee formed by DeLay. The article should also have said that charges against Sears were dropped as part of an agreement with a Texas prosecutor, who found “no intent on the part of [Sears] to violate Texas law.”

The indictment rocked Capitol Hill and raised questions about how effectively House Republicans would operate. DeLay has been a top fundraiser for the GOP, a strict enforcer of party discipline and an outspoken advocate for conservative causes.

House Republican rules required that DeLay give up his leadership job because of the indictment, but he retains his House seat. DeLay is the highest-ranking member of Congress ever to be indicted.

The single charge alleges that DeLay and two political associates conspired to illegally funnel corporate money to Republican candidates in Texas. It capped years of intense political animosity between DeLay and Ronnie Earle, the Democratic district attorney in Austin, Texas, who is leading what has been a lengthy investigation into DeLay and his allies.


“Let me be very, very clear,” DeLay said Wednesday. “I have done nothing wrong. I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House. I have done nothing unlawful, unethical or, I might add, unprecedented.”

Many of his colleagues backed him up, and White House spokesmen Scott McClellan said that President Bush still considered DeLay “a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people.”

Democrats seized on the indictment as another in a series of ethical problems and political missteps by the Republican establishment.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco called DeLay’s indictment “the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people” -- an accusation she and other Democrats have signaled they will emphasize in next year’s midterm elections.

For many Republicans, DeLay’s indictment heightens anxiety over the political environment developing for the 2006 campaign.

“Anytime you have anything that even smacks of scandal, I think it hurts all of us,” Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) said.

DeLay, 58, was first elected to the House in 1984 from Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Once the owner of a pest-control company, he emerged as a prominent lawmaker after the so-called Republican revolution in the 1994 elections gave the party control of the House for the first time in 50 years.

He earned the nickname “The Hammer” for keeping his GOP colleagues in line. He was deft at tapping into Washington lobbyists and other sources of political money to help keep Republicans in power. And he was a major force behind President Clinton’s impeachment.

Blunt, a close DeLay ally, had been serving as the House GOP whip, the party’s No. 3 post. Blunt will be assisted in his new job by Reps. David Dreier of San Dimas and Eric Cantor of Virginia.

DeLay’s legal problems grew out of his efforts to fortify the GOP majority in the House.

His aim was to help elect a Republican majority in both chambers of the Texas state Legislature that would reopen a congressional redistricting plan negotiated between Democrats and Republicans after the 2000 census.

After Republicans captured the Texas House and Senate in 2002, the Legislature redrew the district lines in a manner more favorable to Republicans. That helped the GOP gain five congressional seats from the state in 2004.

The indictment contends that DeLay conspired with two associates, John Colyandro and James Ellis, “to violate the Texas Election Code by contributing corporate money to certain candidates for the Texas Legislature.” Texas law bans the use of corporate funds on behalf of state political candidates.

The indictment does not give specific details of the alleged violation. Prosecutor Earle said that those were “issues of evidence that will be presented at trial.”

According to the indictment, DeLay and the other two defendants agreed in September 2002 that they or the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee -- a DeLay fundraising operation known as TRMPAC -- would send corporate contributions to the Republican National Committee. That money was then to be distributed to state legislative candidates in Texas.

The indictment said that TRMPAC accepted $190,000 in contributions from several corporations, including Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Bacardi USA Inc. The money allegedly was funneled to seven GOP candidates in Texas. All seven won their legislative races.

DeLay, who faces a maximum punishment of two years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted, called Earle an “unabashed partisan zealot.” His lawyer said he hoped the case would go to trial quickly, perhaps by year’s end.

In Austin, Earle denied he was politically motivated. “Our job is to prosecute abuses of power,” he said.

While the criminal case develops in Texas, the implications for the GOP power base in Washington are significant.

Recent polls have shown approval ratings for the GOP-controlled Congress stuck in the low- to mid-30% range. Those figures are not much higher than the marks Democrats received just before the 1994 elections.

“If I were a Republican, I would be getting nervous,” said Gary C. Jacobson, a UC San Diego political scientist who specializes in congressional affairs.

Potentially most threatening for Republicans is the convergence of the DeLay indictment with other ethical controversies swirling around the party.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is facing federal investigations over allegations of insider trading, which he has denied. Federal investigators continue to probe Jack Abramoff, a prominent lobbyist close to DeLay and other GOP leaders. Another federal prosecutor is exploring whether anyone in the Bush administration broke federal laws by leaking to the media the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

The House ethics committee is expected to open an investigation into DeLay’s ties to Abramoff. The lobbyist, who has been indicted in Florida on an unrelated matter, is under investigation for his dealings with Indian tribes and for his lavish entertainment of DeLay and other members of Congress, including stays at overseas golf resorts.

Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster, said the DeLay indictment and the ethical questions surrounding other Republicans would allow “a debate not about big government versus small government, but honest government versus corrupt government -- and that is vastly better for Democrats.”

Many GOP strategists do not think opportunities for gains are as great as Democrats believe, partly because polls show voters are more satisfied with their individual member of Congress than with the institution overall.

“The macro numbers [for Congress] look worse than the sentiment on the street for the individual members,” said William Miller, vice president and political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.



Chronology of events

Key dates leading to Rep. Tom DeLay’s indictment.

* Sept. 21, 2004: Three political fundraisers with ties to DeLay are indicted by a Texas grand jury on allegations of funneling illegal corporate campaign funds to Republican candidates for state office. DeLay was not charged, and called the indictments politically motivated.

* Sept. 30, 2004: DeLay is admonished by the House ethics committee for offering in 2003 to support the son of then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to succeed his father in the House of Representatives if Smith changed his mind and voted for the Medicare drug benefit bill.

* Oct. 6, 2004: The ethics committee rebukes DeLay for involving the Federal Aviation Administration in a Texas partisan matter -- tracking Democratic state legislators who fled the state on a private plane to avoid a vote on a DeLay-backed congressional redistricting plan -- and for staging a fundraising event in a way that appeared to link access to him with political donations.

* Nov. 17, 2004: House Republicans change a party rule to allow DeLay to remain majority leader if he is indicted. Under pressure, the GOP reverses course and instead changes another rule to make it easier to block congressional ethics investigations.

* March 2005: Newspaper reports raise questions about two overseas trips by DeLay that were linked to Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now under criminal investigation for his tactics in promoting Indian tribes’ gambling interests. DeLay denied any wrongdoing.

* April 2005: House Republicans scrap controversial new ethics committee rules passed earlier in the year that would have made it harder to proceed with an ethics investigation. Democrats charged the rules were meant to protect DeLay.

* August 2005: Abramoff is indicted on six counts of fraud and conspiracy stemming from his role in the 2000 purchase of SunCruz Casinos’ fleet of gambling boats. He pleads not guilty.

* Sept. 13: Two political fundraisers associated with DeLay are indicted on additional felony charges of violating Texas election law and criminal conspiracy to violate election law for their role in 2002 legislative races.

* Wednesday: A Texas grand jury charges DeLay and the two political fundraisers charged earlier this month with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme.

Graphics reporting by Richard Simon and John Jackson

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Associated Press


Serrano reported from Washington and Gold from Houston. Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein, Janet Hook and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.