Detailing the Case Against Tom DeLay

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) has been charged with criminal conspiracy, forcing him to step aside as House majority leader. A single felony count alleges he conspired to violate Texas law with corporate donations to key legislative races.

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The dust is still settling on Capitol Hill after this week's bombshell: the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Ronnie Earle, the district attorney in Austin, Texas, has charged him with conspiring to evade Texas campaign finance laws. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has this look at the details of the legal case taking shape.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

In 2001, Tom DeLay had a vision. Using his power as House majority leader, he would change the face of Texas politics forever. DeLay created a political action committee called TRMPAC, Texans for a Republican Majority. He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate campaign contributions and used the money to support Republicans for the Texas House. And in 2002, for the first time in more than a century, the GOP took control of all three branches of Texas government. There was just one problem.

Mr. CRAIG McDONALD (Texans for Public Justice): We witnessed what we thought was widespread cheating in the 2002 elections. Essentially we saw crime and we called the cops, and that cop was Ronnie Earle. So we filed a complaint with Ronnie asking him to investigate Tom DeLay and TRMPAC.

GOODWYN: Craig McDonald is the director of the public interest group Texans for Public Justice. One of the things that Texans for Public Justice does is look at politicians' campaign donations to see who their financial friends are.

Mr. McDONALD: TRMPAC was keeping two sets of books. We went into their IRS filings and we saw $600,000 of what appeared to be corporate money. Under Texas law there's a long-standing prohibition against using corporate money to run your political campaigns.

GOODWYN: In the meantime, Tom DeLay's vision was beginning to come true. In 2004, having drawn new congressional lines, Texas sent five new Republican congressmen to Washington, each and every one of them grateful to Tom DeLay. The downside was that Tom DeLay's political associates were beginning to be indicted. Among other things, they were being accused of laundering corporate campaign contributions in those 2002 Texas House races through the Republican National Committee in Washington. McDonald says one transaction particularly stood out.

Mr. McDONALD: Tom DeLay's staff provided the RNC with a check for $190,000 and a list of seven candidates with totals next to their names totalling, coincidentally, $190,000, and those checks were then sent back to those candidates, having been laundered--that is, turned from corporate money illegal in Texas to clean non-corporate money.

Mr. DICK DEGUERIN (Criminal Defense Lawyer): Well, I suppose it does look bad, but it really isn't 190 in and 190 out. But it's not the same money.

GOODWYN: Dick DeGuerin is one of the best criminal defense lawyers in Texas, and now he's Congressman DeLay's leading man. DeGuerin says that in early September of 2002, DeLay's PAC did send $190,000 of corporate contributions to the Republican National Committee. Two weeks later, from a different account the RNC sent $190,000 to the seven Texas Republicans. The point DeGuerin wants to make is that his client had nothing to do with these transactions.

Mr. DEGUERIN: DeLay didn't make any of those decisions. He learned about 'em after they were made. He didn't disapprove of 'em. But even if he had known about 'em in advance, which he did not, it wouldn't be wrong.

GOODWYN: DeGuerin says the RNC had every right to do what it did. What worries DeGuerin is that Ronnie Earle has charged Tom DeLay with conspiracy. That changes the rules of evidence, so if one of those who were involved gets on the stand and testifies, `We checked and Tom DeLay said it was OK, so we went ahead with it,' a jury might decide that's enough evidence for them.

Mr. DEGUERIN: Statements made by an alleged co-conspirator out of the presence and hearing of another co-conspirator--can it be admitted against that person without that person even knowing about it?

GOODWYN: And Dick DeGuerin has another worry: that he's going to be facing an Austin jury. During the congressional redistricting in 2003, DeLay tried to rid the US Congress of Lloyd Doggett by dividing Austin into three separate congressional districts. The liberal Doggett still won, but Austinites haven't forgotten how DeLay carved them up.

Mr. DEGUERIN: Anytime you represent somebody who is a controversial figure, you feel like you're swimming upstream, and let's face it. In some parts of Austin and Travis County, Tom DeLay is not the most popular guy.

GOODWYN: DeGuerin says he hasn't decided whether to ask for a change of venue. It's a bit of a conundrum because Tom DeLay wants his day in court sooner rather than later. The filing deadline for his congressional seat, January 2nd, is coming all too quickly. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Austin.

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