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And I'm Melissa Block.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted today by a grand jury in Texas. The charge is criminal conspiracy. It stems from his political action committee's funnelling of corporate money to candidates for the Texas state Legislature. Party rules have forced DeLay to step aside from his position in the House Republican leadership, for now. He's been replaced by the whip, Roy Blunt of Missouri. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:
The word came out of Texas this afternoon and instantly spread through the halls of Congress. The powerful House majority leader, known as the "Hammer" for his heavy, blunt tactics, was indicted for his alleged part in a campaign finance scheme. DeLay lashed back at the charges in a hastily called press conference.
Representative TOM DeLAY (Republican, Texas): A rogue district attorney in Travis County, Texas, named Ronnie Earle charged me with one count of criminal conspiracy, a reckless charge wholly unsupported by the facts. This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history.
SEABROOK: DeLay claims that the indictment is nothing more than part of a political vendetta against him led by Earle, the district attorney. DeLay says Earle, who is a Democrat, is a partisan fanatic and would do anything to take DeLay down. But the charge is serious, alleging DeLay and his two of his associates conspired to funnel corporate donations to Republicans' political campaigns, which is illegal in Texas. And because he's been indicted, DeLay must give up his Republican leadership post in Congress, at least for the time being.
Rep. DeLAY: I will temporarily step aside as floor leader in order to win exoneration from these baseless charges. Now let me be very, very clear: I have done nothing wrong. I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House. I have done nothing unlawful, unethical or, I might add, unprecedented.
SEABROOK: For the most part, DeLay's Republican colleagues reacted with full support for him, though some were a bit bewildered. Even DeLay's friend and fellow Texas Republican Pete Sessions seemed to have been caught off guard.
Representative PETE SESSIONS (Republican, Texas): And just one month ago Mr. DeLay was told by the prosecutor that he was not even a target of the investigation. So it calls into question balance, justice and rule of law.
SEABROOK: Democrats said they weren't surprised. California's Henry Waxman said DeLay and his associates have been the subject of too many ethical complaints and civil charges for him to be surprised.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): There's too much smoke. There's too much of a cloud of corruption. And even the House of Representatives has not moved aggressively to police itself, and this is what we see in the House.
SEABROOK: Waxman goes on to mention recent allegations in the Senate against Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether he benefited from inside information when he sold his stock in a hospital his family founded. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called DeLay's indictment, quote, "the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people."
And New York Democrat Charles Rangel said that's not just scoring political points. He said these allegations of corruption tear down the reputation of the entire Congress.
Representative CHARLES RANGEL (Democrat, New York): It's bad for the Congress. It's terminally bad for us, but politically speaking, I guess people will be taking another look at the Republican majority.
SEABROOK: DeLay and other Republicans say they're trying to keep their members focused on the legislative agenda. But that may prove very difficult with serious federal charges against their most outspoken and visible leader and an election year just around the corner. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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