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9-28-05 - 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.
DeLay, 58, was accused of a criminal conspiracy along with two 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.
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.
Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., will recommend that Rep. David Dreier of California step into those duties, said GOP congressional officials. Some of the duties may go to the GOP whip, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri. The Republican rank and file may meet as early as Wednesday night to act on Hastert's recommendation.
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.
Kevin Madden, DeLay's spokesman, dismissed the charge as politically motivated.
"This indictment is nothing more than prosecutorial retribution by a partisan Democrat," Madden said, citing prosecutor Ronnie Earle, a Democrat.
Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissed the indictment as the work of an "unapologetic Democrat partisan" _ Earle _ and said, "Democrats resent Tom DeLay because he routinely defeats them both politically and legislatively."
Madden later added: "They could not get Tom DeLay at the polls. They could not get Mr. DeLay on the House floor. Now they're trying to get him into the courtroom. This is not going to detract from the Republican agenda."
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.
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.
Statements following House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's indictment.
"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." _ House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
"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." _ House Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.
"Congressman DeLay is 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." _ White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
"For too long Tom DeLay has been the subject of a partisan witch hunt by (Travis County District Attorney) Ronnie Earle and the media that has ultimately led to a distorted public image of assumed guilt." _ Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas.
"Until Majority Leader Tom DeLay has his day in court, it is vitally important he be afforded the same presumption of innocence afforded to every other American." _ National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds of New York.
"My normal reaction to an indictment is that everyone is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Tom DeLay is a highly respected Republican leader. He has dedicated his life to the Republican Party, to the State of Texas and to the Nation, and he deserves the same presumption of innocence as anyone else. I have never doubted his sincerity nor his devotion to those he represents, his State and our Nation.
"In such a highly publicized case, with a Democratic prosecutor and a Republican defendant, it is in the best interests of the district Mr. DeLay represents and his fellow Members of the House of Representatives that he not be denied the right to a speedy trial.
"We have many challenges - the budget, Iraq and Afghanistan, the damaging vicissitudes of nature, veterans' issues and others. The sooner we reconcile the accusations and this indictment, the better off all the entities affected will be. Tom DeLay is entitled to fair and equal justice, and this should be the goal of both the prosecution and the defense." _ Congressman Ralph Hall on Majority Leader Tom Delay