Is DeLay's Resignation Linked to Aide's Guilty Plea?

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) on Tuesday announced his intention to resign from Congress just days after a former top aide pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. DeLay says the two events are unrelated — Ari Shapiro talks with some former federal prosecutors to find out what they think.

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Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay announced his intention to resign from Congress this week after his former deputy chief of staff pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.

NPR's Ari Shapiro looks into whether the one has anything to do with the other.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

According to the hammer himself, the two have nothing to do with each other.

Representative TOM DELAY (former House Majority Leader; Republican, Texas): I have no fear whatsoever about any investigation into me or my personal or professional activities.

SHAPIRO: Tom Delay says he's resigning his House seat because he fears losing his re-election bid, not because of the growing federal criminal investigation into bribery, fraud, and corruption. The people who have conducted investigations into public figures say when Tony Rudy pleaded guilty to corruption charges last week, it did not bode well for his former boss.

JOSH BERMAN (Federal Prosecutor): From Delay's point of view it's potentially devastating. It's the last person he would want talking to the government. It's basically a human wiretap.

SHAPIRO: Josh Berman used to work for the Justice Department's Public Integrity section. Like all of the former federal prosecutors interviewed for this story, Berman is not involved with the Delay case. But he's prosecuted public officials in the past.

BERMAN: In cases like this, where the federal prosecutors land themselves a top cooperator who's going to be able to testify about what took place in closed door meetings, in one on one phone conversations--that's the kind of cooperator who strikes fear in the heart of people he had conversations with. And so if there is dirty laundry, and if there are bodies buried, and Delay knows about it--this is the kind of action which is going to cause him to think twice about continuing in politics.

SHAPIRO: Prosecutors always find out what a person knows before offering a plea agreement. So investigators knew what Tony Rudy was worth before they cut him a deal. Former prosecutor Tom DiBiagio says Rudy's plea bargain means government attorneys have decided that the man has valuable information about someone.

Mr. TOM DiBiagio (Former Prosecutor): And they intend to take that information and run with the ball. And whether that means they're running towards Mr. Delay or running towards someone else, only the prosecutors know.

SHAPIRO: There is at least one clear rule in plea agreements says former Justice Department official Irv Nathan.

Mr. IRV NATHAN (Former Justice Department official): In any cooperation arrangement the arrows point up, not down. Prosecutors look for testimony against higher-ups, not subordinates.

SHAPIRO: Nathan says cooperators are especially key in corruption cases. Because when you have a willing briber and a willing bribee, neither person wants to testify against the other.

Mr. NATHAN: Therefore it's very important to have people on the inside who were present at meetings, who know what went on, and who had access to decision makers to know whether a quid pro quo was promised.

SHAPIRO: Delay says he's not the target of a federal investigation. That doesn't mean he never will be. Tom DiBiagio says when he ran the U.S. Attorney's office in Baltimore, he'd often wait until the very end of an investigation before he'd identify a public official as a target. Still, DiBiagio says, it's possible Delay really did step down because of politics rather than prosecutors.

Mr. DiBiagio: This could be a, a pure political decision based on the realities on the ground in Texas, and the realities of his ability to prevail in an election. And he could be doing this for the benefit of the Republican Party. So absolutely, this could have nothing to do with the active federal criminal investigation that's ongoing in Washington.

SHAPIRO: Regardless of his motivation, Delay's decision to step down brings with it one important benefit. He can now use his substantial re-election coffers to augment his legal defense fund should he one day find himself in federal prosecutors' sights. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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CHADWICK: After the break that's coming up we'll take a look at the Democrats. Is that a gain in their polling, or are voters just happy to see them.

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CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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