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Texas Case May Require Insider Testimony

Times Staff Writer

Prosecutors are prepared to use information from people involved in Rep. Tom DeLay’s fundraising organization, including out-of-state business executives, against him in an effort to prove that he conspired to route illegal corporate money into elections, attorneys and officials close to the case said Thursday.

That information -- some of it contained in documents, such as a note reminding DeLay to call an executive whose company was preparing to write a $25,000 check -- would be used at trial to suggest that the indicted congressman was directly involved in the fundraising setup, the attorneys and officials said.

Still, analysts said it was not enough for Dist. Atty. Ronald Earle, who is leading the prosecution, to show that DeLay helped raise money from corporations, even though Texas law bans corporate contributions to legislative candidates.

To convict DeLay, Earle must show that the U.S. House majority leader intentionally agreed to commit a felony.

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Earle would have to show, essentially, that DeLay knew the corporate money he was raising was going to be routed to Republican legislative candidates.

For that, Earle would need an inside witness to turn state’s evidence -- and a furious parlor game has begun in Texas over whom that might be, and what that person might be willing to say at trial.

“He’s got an opera singer,” one Democrat said.

David H. Berg, a Houston attorney who wrote a book on trial law, has argued numerous conspiracy cases and is far less certain that Earle can secure a conviction.

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“Ronnie Earle has got to be holding a good hand that he’s just not showing,” Berg said.

A Texas grand jury indicted DeLay on Wednesday, charging him with conspiracy, which forced him to step down, for now, from his leadership post in Congress.

The indictment focuses on a transaction during the 2002 election cycle in Texas, when Republicans, long the minority party in Texas, took control of the state’s political structure and helped secure DeLay’s power base in Washington.

In that process, a committee DeLay founded to assist conservative politicians -- Texans for a Republican Majority -- collected money from corporations. The committee, known as TRMPAC, then wrote a $190,000 check to an arm of the Republican National Committee in Washington.

According to prosecutors, the national committee then distributed the money back to seven Texas legislative candidates.

DeLay has called the indictment the result of a political vendetta and has denied any wrongdoing.

Although Earle has declined to discuss any of the evidence that was presented behind closed doors to the grand jury, DeLay’s lawyer suggested that the indictment was a sham. It contained so little information, said attorney Dick DeGuerin, that it was intended more to embarrass DeLay -- Earle knew that under GOP rules DeLay would have to step down from his leadership post -- than to convict him.

“If you read the indictment, you can’t tell what Tom DeLay is charged with doing,” DeGuerin said.

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Texas indictments, however, frequently contain little information about what prosecutors know or what they hope to prove at trial.

Sources with knowledge of the case said some of the evidence that Earle has could prove damaging to the congressman.

Much of that evidence would probably come from corporations that have also been indicted in the scandal.

A year ago, a grand jury indicted three of DeLay’s top aides and accused them of money laundering and unlawfully accepting and soliciting corporate contributions. At the time, eight corporations were also accused of taking part in the conspiracy.

The corporations have denied wrongdoing, but four of them have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors -- on top of other provisions -- in exchange for the dismissal of their indictments. The investigation of the companies has yielded some evidence.

One document, for instance, shows that DeLay was asked to call the former chief executive of one of the companies, the Internet company Questerra Corp., which wrote a $25,000 check to TRMPAC.

Another of the indicted companies, the Williams Cos. Inc., an Oklahoma gas exploration and production firm, sent its $25,000 contribution directly to DeLay, signed, “With best wishes,” by one of its vice presidents. In the letter, the company said it was making good on a pledge made at a June 2002 fundraiser.

That fundraiser, a golf outing, has long added to the controversy surrounding DeLay. Last fall, the House ethics committee cited DeLay’s participation in the fundraiser when it admonished the congressman for the third time. The panel called the event “objectionable” because it involved energy companies and took place shortly before an important vote on energy legislation.

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Williams Cos. did not return phone calls seeking comment. Questerra is a subsidiary of Connecticut-based MeadWestvaco, whose spokeswoman said the company continues to cooperate with prosecutors, though she refused to say whether it had been asked to participate if the DeLay case went to trial.

Prosecutors are also expected to lift liberally from a civil lawsuit brought by five candidates for the Texas Legislature who contend they were defeated in 2002 because illegal corporate contributions were given to their opponents.

Prosecutors are expected to seize upon the testimony of one defense witness in the civil case, Charlie Spies, a former attorney for the Republican National Committee.

In one exchange during that trial, Spies was asked to add up a series of contributions that were made to TRMPAC and a series of contributions that the Republican National Committee made to legislative candidates in Texas. Both lists added up to $190,000.

“That was pure coincidence?” asked the lawyer for the Democrats, Cris Feldman.

“I don’t think I’d use the word ‘coincidence,’ ” Spies replied.

Spies, who could not be reached, acknowledged during his testimony that the donations from the Republican National Committee to the legislative candidates were unusually large. He said that happened when “people we care about” made the request -- and DeLay, he testified, would qualify.

That case has been partially resolved; in May, a judge ruled that the TRMPAC treasurer broke the law by failing to report corporate donations, and ordered the treasurer to pay the Democratic candidates $196,660.

Spies “definitely gave the impression that people can ask the Republican National Committee to move money wherever they want and the Republican National Committee is more than happy to help,” said Feldman, who alleges that DeLay was involved in the planning and execution of the fundraising operation.

“They didn’t have a problem being a laundromat. That’s basically what he said.”

But there is considerable disagreement about how valuable Spies’ testimony might be to prosecutors in the DeLay case.

Terry Scarborough, a Houston attorney who represented the TRMPAC treasurer, said Spies was merely explaining that before legislation cracked down in 2003, “Democrats and Republicans routinely traded money between state and national parties.”

“There was nothing improper or illegal about it,” Scarborough said. “That testimony can’t possibly help them.”

Then Earle would be back where he started -- in need of an insider who has agreed to testify. Numerous names have surfaced as possibilities, including both DeLay lieutenants named in the indictment as his alleged co-conspirators, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis.

Also mentioned is Warren RoBold, a national Republican fundraiser who was indicted in the case last year and has denied wrongdoing.

Colyandro and Ellis could not be reached for comment.

RoBold’s Houston attorney, Rusty Hardin, said Thursday night that his client was cooperating with prosecutors but should not be thought of as a smoking gun.

“RoBold doesn’t have any information that can assist them,” Hardin said.

“We are cooperating in the sense that we have met with them and told them what we know. But it’s not cooperating in terms of providing information that is damaging to anyone. And we haven’t seen any evidence of a crime by DeLay.”


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