BRIAN NAYLOR, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Brian Naylor in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.
Today in Texas, an indictment was handed out by a grand jury charging Tom DeLay, the Republican leader of the US House of Representatives, with one count of criminal conspiracy. DeLay was charged with violating the state's campaign finance law. The repercussions were immediate. DeLay notified House Speaker Dennis Hastert that he will temporarily relinquish his leadership position. DeLay, dubbed the Hammer by his admirers, has provided the muscle behind the Republican agenda in Washington, but his influence extends far beyond the Capitol Building. What happens to that agenda? What does it mean for the White House? How much of an opening does this present Democrats? We'll address those issues in this hour, and we invite you to join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
Joining us now from his office is Washington Post reporter Jeffrey Smith.
Jeffrey, it's hard to know exactly where to begin with this story, so I guess you can just start at the beginning. What is DeLay charged with?
Mr. JEFFREY SMITH (The Washington Post): Happy to be here. DeLay is charged with criminal conspiracy. The indictment specifically alleges that he conspired with two others with the intention that a felony be committed, and entered into an agreement with one or more of them to funnel corporate money illegally into the 2002 Texas elections.
NAYLOR: Now this is taking--he's charged with basically taking money from his campaign fund and donating it to a Texas campaign fund?
Mr. SMITH: No, not quite.
Mr. SMITH: What happened is that as the 2002 elections approached, DeLay and his colleagues formulated a strategy about how to--a strategy that--how to do something in Texas that would benefit the men in Washington, and so it's a bit complicated for that reason because they did something in Texas first and reaped the benefits later in Washington, DC. But let me try to explain it. They set up a committee called Texans for a Republican Majority. It was founded by DeLay and several colleagues, you know, political associates, advisers, fund-raisers, and it was modeled after something that he had, a national fund-raising committee called Americans for a Republican Majority.
Americans for a Republican Majority gave some money to the Texas group to get it off the ground, and then the Texas group went out and raised its own funds. It raised funds from corporations. Under Texas election law, that money was allowed to be spent only on administrative expenses in Texas. It was not allowed--you were not allowed, under Texas law, to give that money to Texas candidates. So to get around that, according to the indictment, basically they sent this money, this corporate money, to Washington. They sent--specifically sent it to the Repub--to an arm of the Republican National Committee. The Republican National Committee in turn sent the money back to the candidates in Texas.
Now two of the fund-raisers and people associated with this in Texas have already been accused of money laundering and conspired to launder money. In other words, to evade the Texas law by sending the money they collected in Texas to Washington where it would be sent back to Texas, washed in a way, of its original--it was supposed to be washed of its original Texas links and thus look like it was legal money, but it--and it was the same money. There's no dispute about that, that the money was collected in Texas, it was sent to Washington, it was sent back to Texas. They have the check. They have, you know, really good evidence that this happened.
The question is who knew about it and how much did they know? And this is--what's happened today is for the first time they've alleged that Tom DeLay knew and that he was part of the agreement to do this.
NAYLOR: Let me just read a little bit--DeLay's office put out a statement. DeLay has not yet spoken publicly about this indictment, which came just a few hours ago. `These charges have no basis in the facts or the law. This is just another example of Ronnie Earle misusing his office for partisan vendettas.' Ronnie Earle being the prosecutor in Texas in Travis County. `Despite the clearly political agenda of this prosecutor,' the statement goes on, `Congressman DeLay has cooperated with officials throughout the entire process. Even in the last two weeks, Ronnie Earle himself acknowledged publicly that Mr. DeLay was not a target of his investigation; however, as with many of Ronnie Earle's previous partisan investigations,' the statement says, `Ronnie Earle has refused to let the facts or the law get in the way of his partisan desire to indict a political foe.'
Let me just ask you about one aspect of that statement, Jeffrey Smith, and that is that Earle had said publicly that DeLay was not a target of the investigation. Is that exactly accurate?
Mr. SMITH: He did say it. You know--well, he--actually he didn't say it so bluntly. He said that, you know, he wasn't gonna--he didn't identify DeLay as a target. I don't think he's ever said that--I've paid close attention to his statements over the past 34 months, and he ne--to my knowledge, he never said that DeLay was not a target. He said that, you know--he just--he named people who were targets and he didn't include DeLay on that list, and he did--he said the investigation is gonna go where it goes. So as far as I know, he didn't ever rule out the possibility of indicting DeLay. He just didn't say that he was trying to do it.
Now as to the partisanship, you know, it's true that Earle is an elected Democrat. He oversees the state's Public Integrity Unit, and he's been in that job for a long time. During that period of time, he's previously prosecuted four elected Republicans and 12 Democrats for corruption or election law violations, so, yeah, he's a Democrat, but he's actually indicted--previously indicted more Democrats than Republicans for corruption.
NAYLOR: Let me ask you about--you know, as you say, this investigation has been going on in Texas. A couple of Mr. DeLay's associates have already been indicted. Yet all indications were that DeLay himself was probably going to emerge unscathed. Were you surprised by this?
Mr. SMITH: Mildly. I mean, basically they have good evidence, as I said, that this money changed hands in a very questionable way. The question--the target of their work at the grand jury has always been sort of who knew about it, and in order to get DeLay into the conspiracy, one of the co-conspirators has to say, it seems to me--I don't know this for a fact, but I can't imagine how they could prove it otherwise--one of the co-conspirators has to say, `Yeah, DeLay knew, too.' And so that means they got somebody who was party to the conspiracy to say DeLay was aware of it. And that surprises me a little bit. Tom DeLay is known for, you know, keeping his political associates pretty close, so one of them seems to have--would be my guess anyway--one of them seems to have fingered him.
NAYLOR: What does all this--what does all this mean in Washington in the Capitol Building? Immediately DeLay is going to have to step down under Republican rules. Now that he's been indicted he can no longer actively take part as a part of the leadership team. What does that mean?
Mr. SMITH: It means he's gonna be out of that--out of the job, you know, in title, for a while. It doesn't change the fact that he's one of the most influential lawmakers in the House, and no one expects him to, you know, withdraw and go back to Texas. I think he's gonna stay in Washington and I'm sure he'll continue to be very influential. I wouldn't be surprised if he tried to use what he feels is a partisan targeting of his power as a fund-raising device. I mean, he's already collected money from large corporations to pay for his legal bills. You know, his defense, in effect, against charges based on raising money from large corporations. It's very interesting.
NAYLOR: Presumably he's gonna have to leave Washington, go down to Austin and stand trial at some point?
Mr. SMITH: At some point, yeah, but I mean, his lawyers will do all the--you know, the preliminary work and it'll drag out for a while. His lawyers--the lawyers for the participants in this so-called conspiracy, this alleged conspiracy have been fighting every step of the way. That's one reason why it's gone on for so long. They've challenged the constitutionality of the law. They said it was unconstitutionally vague. They said that, you know, the prosecutors were not entitled to obtain the--you know, the records that they used to form the indictment. They've fought it all the way along, and I can't imagine DeLay adopting a different strategy.
NAYLOR: Any sense who is going to replace DeLay as Republican leader at this point?
Mr. SMITH: You know, they're supposed to--there may be a vote later today. The common understanding is it's gonna be someone named David Dreier, who's chairman of the House Rules Committee and a Republican loyalist who's, you know, pretty close to DeLay and to his colleagues.
NAYLOR: All of Republican Washington, I think, is close to DeLay. A good part of it owes their presence here to Tom DeLay, doesn't it?
Mr. SMITH: I'd say a good part of it, but not everybody. I mean, he has a particular leadership style, very aggressive and very, very conservative, which alienates some Republicans. I'd say, you know, most of them like it, most of the current Republicans in Congress like him, like his style, and enjoy the fruits of it. He's a tremendous fund-raiser.
NAYLOR: Hmm. Mm-hmm. And, in fact, the speaker of the House was once one of his deputies, was he not?
Mr. SMITH: Yes, yeah.
NAYLOR: We're talking about today's indictment--excuse me--of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and we'll have more coming up after a break. I'm Brian Naylor. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we'll get to that break in just a minute.
While we still have you here, Jeffrey, I wanted to ask, you said that there are two others that have been charged in this case in Texas already?
Mr. SMITH: Yeah, the--one of the fund-raisers and the director of the committee, the Texans for a Republican Majority. They were charged, you know, with conspiracy between the two of them earlier this month, and today they were charged, you know, in a conspiracy with Tom DeLay.
NAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And what have their--have their lawyers all been working together more or less on this?
Mr. SMITH: I'm sure that they speak to one another, but everybody's got their own lawyer and they'll all be defending the charges, you know, with their own resources. But they've all denied any wrongdoing, and no one has said...
NAYLOR: All right.
Mr. SMITH: ...`Yeah, yeah, I made a mistake.'
NAYLOR: Thank you.
Jeffrey Smith is a national investigative reporter for The Washington Post.
We'll have more on this story in a moment after the break. I'm Brian Naylor. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
NAYLOR: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Brian Naylor in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.
We are talking about today's news. Just hours ago, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted in a Texas campaign finance probe. Representative DeLay has temporarily stepped down from his position as the House majority leader, and Representative David Dreier of California is expected to take over DeLay's duties. We've got several journalists to talk about the story and what it means, and we're taking your questions as well. Call us at 1 (800) 989-TALK.
Our next guest is Michael Duffy. He is the Washington bureau chief for Time magazine and joins us now from his home in suburban Maryland.
Mr. MICHAEL DUFFY (Time Magazine): Hi, Brian.
NAYLOR: Well, let me ask a little broader from the Capitol, the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, what does this mean, if anything, for President Bush and what he's trying to get done?
Mr. DUFFY: Well, I don't think it's good news for the White House. One of the key strategic goals of the president's second term is to build and extend that Republican majority in Congress. He's really one of the first presidents to have increased his party's position in the House and the Senate two elections in a row, both in 2002 and 2004. It really would be unprecedented if he is able to do it in 2006. That is their goal, and this will make it harder, at least it seems that way now because Tom DeLay is a tremendous fund-raiser. The House conference, the Republicans in the House really, I think as your previous guest said, really do like him. They're very loyal to him, and this will sort of throw the whole political apparatus in the GOP in confusion for a while. But they--you know parties in this situation tend to rebound and use adversity to their advantage, and that could yet happen, so it's a little too early to say this is gonna make that goal harder of extending the political grip the GOP has. I think in terms of getting legislation passed, there hasn't been a great push to get a lot done this year. This, of course, won't make it easier.
NAYLOR: Earlier, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, more or less deflected questions about DeLay, saying, `We need to let the legal process work.' One gets the sense that DeLay and the president are sort of reluctant allies perhaps, or not as close as you might think.
Mr. DUFFY: Well, yeah. You know, they're both political powerhouses from two different wings of the GOP in Texas. They have never been close. They weren't much aligned, as Bush was sort of a state-based politician and DeLay was always--his power center was always here in Washington, and since they've come here, they've done some deals and worked together, but it's never been a close, personal relationship, and that was true of DeLay and Bush's father. So they--it's chiefly because they have different power bases. Bush has always been extremely reluctant to get close--I know this is not what many people think--but he has always been very reluctant to mix personally or his team with the kind of corporate lobbyists and influence peddlers that the waters that DeLay swims in quite comfortably and has for years. There is just a different attitude about that between the two of them.
NAYLOR: Let's take a call here. Joe joins us now from Rochester, New York.
Joe, welcome to the program.
JOE (Caller): Thank you very much. I just had a quick question. I was wondering if, in fact, he is convicted after trial or he just pleads guilty, will he still be able to be in Congress or will he be forced to resign?
NAYLOR: All right. That's a good question. Michael?
Mr. DUFFY: Well, I--that's a great question. As you know, the rules, if you're indicted on a charge--a criminal charge with this kind of potential jail time, which in this case is three years, you have to step down from your position. But there have been people who've been indicted and convicted and actually stayed in Congress. Now going to jail would be different, but I think we're a long way off from that. This is a state felony charge. The prosecutor is a Democrat. It'll have to be tried, and they'll have to get to trial, so there's a long way to go.
NAYLOR: One question this does raise, though, or one repercussion, I should say already, is that DeLay has had to step aside as the House majority leader under House Republican rules.
Mr. DUFFY: That's right, and they--I think you--at the moment, House Speaker Hastert has named David Dreier, a California Republican, to sort of fill some of DeLay's duties. He has not turned to Roy Blunt, the next in line--he's a Missouri Republican--I think chiefly because they don't want to let Blunt move in and take over, so they've sort of appointed a regent to stand in. I don't think DeLay will be very far from any of the action...
Mr. DUFFY: ...or any of the decisions despite all of the, you know, excitement today about who will step in. I think we can all just assume that DeLay will be the--you know, behind the scenes.
NAYLOR: Let me take one more call here. Debra from Berkeley, California, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DEBRA (Caller): Good morning. Oh, thank God. This is a ray of hope for justice and some accountability in this era of Republican powermeisters and arrogance.
NAYLOR: What's the question?
DEBRA: My question has to do with--I'm not quite clear on the cha--there were wrestling matches over changing the ethics rules regarding investigations within the Congress...
DEBRA: ...and I'd like to know--it was--I think they said if there was--if they couldn't make a pass--a request for investigation in 45 days, there was none. Did that happen, and how will it affect DeLay's future leadership?
NAYLOR: Michael, do you know that?
Mr. DUFFY: Yes. Several times over the course of the last couple years, the investigation into Tom DeLay's various fund-raising have risen--have come close to sort of sparking an Ethics Committee in the House and several times failed. Last--most recently--I think it was early this year, he was censured or really just admonished for his handling of one of the fund-raising cases. But the caller's right that there are time tables and thresholds, and if you don't file it within a certain amount of time, you lose your opportunity. So--but this is now--I mean, whatever--the House Ethics Committee is not a place where these things generally get worked out to anyone's satisfaction. Now that this is in a court of law, all the action will shift away from Washington down to Austin.
NAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Let me ask--the caller seemed to be rather glad for this indictment, and I'm wondering, I suspect there are a lot of people in the Democratic Party here in Washington and elsewhere who are--who feel a bit vindicated and maybe a little bit giddy at this point. Is it too soon for their celebration?
Mr. DUFFY: Are you asking me, Brian?
NAYLOR: Yeah, I'm sorry. Go ahead, Michael.
Mr. DUFFY: Yeah. No. Well, I think it is a little too soon. I think that, you know, he'll have superb lawyers. They've already called the Senate indictment skunky and purely political. It came in on the last day the grand jury was sitting. Ronnie Earle, the Austin--the Travis County DA does have a history of sometimes extravagant indictments. He once indicted Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison for assault. So there are some--you know, there are some things about this that have a kind of Wild West quality to it, and I don't think that you can assume that Hou--given where it's come from that we have any idea how it's gonna turn out.
NAYLOR: Democrats, though, have been trying to make a point about talking about the ethics charges in the past against DeLay. They've been talking about now Senator Frist, the Republican majority leader in the Senate has--is under investigation by the SEC for selling some of his stock. Does all of this add up to a case that Democrats can make that the Republican leadership is now corrupt and needs to be replaced?
Mr. DUFFY: Well, I think they're probably sitting there at this moment thinking, `OK, this is the beginning of the end to what was, you know, essentially a 10-year--so far 10-year-long reign by Republicans in Washington.' It's interesting, Brian. You know, the Democrats who really ran the Congress for the better part of a generation and a half, almost 40 years, from the '50s to the '90s, took that long to--you know, for power to corrupt them completely, and they got voted out of office. What's interesting about the Republicans, because they were so intent on cleaning house, they set up term limits and said, `We're only gonna be here, each of us, for so long,' have seemed in a greater rush to collect the power and the chips, and as a consequence have gotten into trouble even faster. And so--but it took a long time for all of the troubles that began affecting Democrats to really cause them to lose their grip on the Congress, really 10 years after their problems began. This kind of thing doesn't happen overnight. It takes a long time for it to settle in and for change to occur.
NAYLOR: Let's take another call. Greg, you're on the line. Greg from San Diego, thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.
GREG (Caller): Hello. I was wondering how this is gonna dovetail with what you just mentioned, Senator Frist, and also Duke Cunningham out here in San Diego is under investigation for selling a house at a great profit, and just the whole sense now, after the hurricanes of the lack of motion in the White House in leadership domestically, is it gonna dovetail or not?
NAYLOR: All right. Thanks for the call.
GREG: Thank you.
NAYLOR: Michael Duffy, what do you--what do you make of that?
Mr. DUFFY: Well, I think it's all a huge distraction for a president whose political agenda had really been in the second term to overhaul Social Security and to, as I said, extend his party's grip on Congress. I think these are now, if not in serious trouble, really have been swept aside, not only by these various scandals that the caller talks about, but also by the events of the last couple of weeks. There is just a completely different agenda than the ones the Republicans came in to take care of. Instead of cutting taxes and cutting government, they're obviously going to have to spend far more than they ever imagined, and they may even have to think about tax increases before this is over. And so I think that their whole world has been turned upside down in a vast, strategic sense, in addition to the smaller issues that are obviously nipping at their heels now. So I think there's just a lot of confusion and heartache about this across the board among Republicans, and while the Democrats haven't yet stood up to say how they would do things differently, I suppose an opportunity is coming.
NAYLOR: Elaine, you join us now from Upland, California.
ELAINE (Caller): Yes, hello and good morning and thank you for taking my call. Brian, my question refers to what impact you and the other two men that you're talking to believe this will have on the move for campaign finance reform?
NAYLOR: All right. That's a good question. Michael, I'll just toss it your way. I mean, this is a very live issue. I know it's coming up again and the Supreme Court's going to be looking at it in this upcoming term. Do you think it's going to have any implications in terms of what Congress is doing? Will there be anymore renewed push for tightening requirements?
Mr. DUFFY: One of the reasons this case is under way is because the central charge is that money was taken from corporations at a state level, funneled through a committee in Washington, sent back by a federal campaign party essentially, to help elect Republican congressmen in Texas. And one of the things DeLay was so obsessed with over the last 10 years was increasing not only his party's hold on the Congress, but particularly in Texas, redistricting those states, turning Democratic cities into Republican cities, and he did it. And he did it in a way that really, I think--you know, he was far more advanced in his thinking, in his action than really political leaders in any other state, but this is--you know, campaign finance is something that the Congress passes kicking and screaming and then some.
You know, it is just a very difficult thing for them to agree to. It took them almost 10 years to do McCain-Feingold. It's very unpopular. People are still upset with John McCain and the Congress about it. So I do not--I wish I could be more optimistic about this, but I just--it's not something you can bet on.
NAYLOR: All right. Well, good enough. Thank you for your time, Michael. I appreciate you joining us today. Michael Duffy is the Washington bureau chief for Time magazine, and he came to us from his home in suburban Maryland.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Joining us now on the phone from Houston, Texas, is Capella Tucker. She's the assistant news director for station KUHF in Houston, and she joins us from the studios there. Welcome to the program.
Ms. CAPELLA TUCKER (Assistant News Director, KUHF): Thank you very much, Brian.
NAYLOR: I understand you've been looking at how the indictment will affect federal relief for areas hit by the hurricane, which I guess coincides with Congressman DeLay's congressional district there. What are some of the worries?
Ms. TUCKER: Yeah. Well, reaction is still coming in to the news today, and so I've been mainly talking with political observers here in the Houston area, and one of the concerns that they brought up Tom DeLay obviously wields a lot of power in Congress, and right now, this is a time where the Houston area, which includes DeLay's district, is looking for relief from the federal government for first Katrina. We housed a lot of evacuees and still are to this day housing a lot of evacuees from New Orleans and Louisiana area. And even today, the Harris County judge was in Washington before Congress asking for money to help with the costs that this area has incurred. And having Tom DeLay in office in the position that he was in helped move things faster, one might say, in his position. He's been, you know, referred to as the Hammer and people could call him and he could get things done.
NAYLOR: Now, of course, there is already a lot of attention on the need for hurricane relief for Katrina and now for Rita and a sense that there will be money flowing into that area. Why do you think people are more concerned now? Is it likely that DeLay's legal troubles would affect that fund?
Ms. TUCKER: Well, it's still to be determined to see if--how distracted DeLay might become because of the legal troubles. And then second of all, there is going to be competition for those dollars, because obviously, there's a wide area that's impacted by both Katrina and Rita. And, you know, the pot is only so large to draw that money down from that. There's concern that maybe what Texas is dealing with and, more specifically, what Houston is dealing with might, you know, get a couple of notches down on the priority list as a result of this, because in the past, you know, DeLay was seen as a person that people could go to to make things happen. You know, he could pick up the phone and things would happen, and now, you know, that phone call from DeLay may or may not have the same strength or power that it had before. Obviously, these are things that are still to be determined, because this is, you know, fresh news.
NAYLOR: Is there anyone from that district, which is just outside of Houston, DeLay's district, Sugar Land, I guess--is there anyone who can step in and replace him?
Ms. TUCKER: Well, you know, that's kind of an interesting question because one of the things that--when I was talking to political observers here locally about is they were noting that, you know, this whole Texans for Republican majority that led to the questionable money raising, that's what put into effect the elections that took place so that DeLay could push through the congressional redistricting that happened. As a result of that, there are a number of Texas congressional leaders--you know, granted Democrats--that had seniority, were taken out of office, and in their place, you have Republicans. Freshmen Republicans do not have the same seniority and are not in leadership positions to just step in and pick up the slack.
NAYLOR: Thanks for joining us. Capella Tucker is the assistant news director for KUHF in Houston, Texas. She joined us by phone from KUHF. Thank you very much.
When we come back from a short break, we'll hear from a doctor in New Orleans about what it's like practicing medicine in that city these days.
I'm Brian Naylor. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.