Tom DeLay Indicted on Campaign Finance Charge

A grand jury charges House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) with one count of criminal conspiracy. The charge relates to funneling corporate contributions to Texas campaigns in 2002, a violation of state law. Following the announcement, DeLay temporarily stepped down from his position.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For the first time in at least a century, a leader of the House of Representatives has been indicted while in office. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is charged with a felony, participating in a criminal conspiracy to evade the state's campaign finance laws. Following the announcement, DeLay temporarily stepped down from his position as House majority leader. He's calling the indictment `groundless.'

NORRIS: The charges are connected to the 2002 elections for the Texas House of Representatives. DeLay is accused of scheming with two of his associates, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis. They allegedly laundered corporate campaign contributions through the Republican National Committee in Washington and then funneled the money to Texas Republican candidates. Our coverage begins with NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

The prevailing wisdom in Washington and Austin political circles was that although Tom DeLay had been somewhat tainted by the criminal cases that had been filed against his associates, that DeLay himself was going to escape indictment. This afternoon, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle announced that was not going to be the case.

Mr. RONNIE EARLE (District Attorney, Travis County, Texas): The indictment describes a scheme whereby corporate money, which cannot be given to candidates in Texas, was sent to the Republican National Committee, where it was exchanged for money raised from individuals and then sent to those Texas legislative candidates.

GOODWYN: It is illegal in Texas for trade unions or corporations to give contributions for political campaigning. In 2002, DeLay set up a political action committee to help the Republican Party win a majority in the Texas House of Representatives. If Republicans could win control of the Texas House, they could then redistrict the state and bring more Republican congressmen to Washington. That's exactly what happened. DeLay's PAC was called TRMPAC, Texas for a Republican Majority.

The former House majority leader is accused of conspiring to take $190,000 in corporate campaign contributions and then sending that money to the Republican National Committee in Washington. Two weeks later, the RNC sent $190,000 worth of checks to seven Republican candidates for the Texas House. That's Earle's accusation; money laundering of political contributions to hide their source.

Mr. EARLE: The law says that corporate contributions to political campaigns are illegal in Texas, and the law makes such contributions a felony. My job is to prosecute felons. I'm doing my job.

GOODWYN: From the beginning of this two-year-old investigation, DeLay has defended himself by portraying the Austin district attorney as a partisan witch-hunter. Earle is a Democrat who has indicted some of the most powerful politicians in Texas. In the '80s, it was mostly Democrats since they controlled the state, but during the 1990s and during this decade, Earle's targets have been mostly Republicans. DeLay repeated his charge of partisan prosecution today.

Representative TOM DeLAY (Republican, Texas): Over the course of this long and bitter political battle, it became clear that the retribution for our success would be ferocious. Today that retribution is being exacted. This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history. It's a sham, and Mr. Earle knows it.

GOODWYN: And there is no question that the indictment alone will wound Congressman DeLay. Instead of concentrating on the Republican agenda in Washington, he must now try to make sure he stays out of jail in Austin. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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