Flip on the cable news this week and you'll get continuing coverage of the Michael Jackson trial in California. But on Capitol Hill, references to "the trial" may be about a civil proceeding in Texas with implications for the future leadership of the Congress.
In Austin, the Texas capital, a civil trial has begun to examine corporate contributions to Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature in the fall of 2002. The plaintiffs in the suit allege that Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee usually referred to as TRMPAC, funneled donations from large companies into those Republican candidates' campaigns. Texas law makes it illegal to use corporate contributions to influence the outcome of elections, though donations may be spent on a campaign's administrative costs.
The case was brought by five Texas Democrats who ran that fall and lost. They are suing Bill Ceverha, the treasurer of TRMPAC and a former Republican state legislator. The Democrats charge that TRMPAC illegally collected and distributed about $600,000 to Republican candidates. Lawyers for Ceverha say the money was used for administrative purposes.
The case is being closely watched for the evidence it might produce, which could in turn affect a pending criminal investigation, also in Austin, where a Travis County grand jury has indicted several top fund-raisers on similar charges.
What do these cases have to do with Pennsylvania Avenue? Two words: Tom DeLay.
The powerful House Majority Leader comes up wherever people are monitoring the civil trial and the criminal indictments, for several reasons.
First, DeLay founded TRMPAC, staffing it with close allies and charging it with the massive task of bringing about the first Republican majority in more than a century in the Texas House. TRMPAC could be called the spawn of another DeLay group, Americans for a Republican Majority, which works nationally.
Second, there are personal connections. Ceverha is a longtime friend of DeLay's, and TRMPAC has awarded work contracts to DeLay's daughter, Dani DeLay Ferro.
Third, in the Travis County criminal investigation, three of DeLay's most trusted fund-raisers have already been indicted by a grand jury on charges of illegal fund raising and campaigning.
DeLay has neither been indicted nor named as a defendant in the civil suit. And his supporters call both cases the work of partisan Democrats, eager for revenge against the powerful Republican who has hurt them so badly in both Austin and Washington.
"As much as the Democrats and their allies would like to make this trial about Tom DeLay, this is not about Tom DeLay," says Dan Allen, DeLay's spokesman in Washington. "He's not involved in this trial at all."
So far at least, that seems to be true. But it was DeLay who devised the plan that fund-raisers and political action committees worked from in 2002. And with their hardball fund raising and campaigning for state seats that year, DeLay's operatives did in fact aid the election of a Republican majority. And once that new majority was seated, a top item on their agenda was to redraw the lines of the state's congressional districts -- with the aim of creating several new Republican districts.
In 2004, that new map brought five new Republicans to the U.S. Congress, all of whom thanked DeLay for their seats. Had it not been for those gains in Texas, the GOP would have lost seats in the House overall last November.
That's one reason why DeLay's stock in the House remains as high as it does. House Republicans know how large a role he has played in their continued domination of the chamber. And that appreciation has shown itself in ways that could be important to DeLay if he becomes embroiled in the Texas legal battles.
Earlier this year, the House Republicans installed a new chairman on the House Ethics Committee and restocked the panel with new Republican members. Last year the chairman had been Colorado Republican Joel Hefley, who with two other GOP members of the ethics panel voted to admonish DeLay on three separate charges of questionable conduct. One of those charges was related to DeLay's involvement in the Texas redistricting battles in 2003.
Now, Hefley is gone, replaced by a longtime DeLay ally, Doc Hastings of Washington. The other two GOP seats on the panel are now held by members who have already contributed to the legal defense fund DeLay has started in case he needs one.
Beyond the personnel changes, House Republicans have also moved to change the rules of the House ethics committee, making it much harder for the panel to investigate politically charged cases.
They even considered passing a rule change to allow DeLay to keep his leadership post if indicted by the Travis County grand jury (dropping that plan only after public outcry).
If his standing remains unshakeable within his caucus, DeLay seems beset by challenges from several directions at once. At a session with reporters in the Capitol this week, the majority leader gave a carefully worded and lawyerly answer four times when asked various questions about a trip he made to Great Britain with a lobbyist who was once his aide.
Every Congress seems to have one key figure whose name is repeatedly linked to controversy. So far there's no question who has that distinction in the 109th.