AUSTIN, Texas – A few years ago, Republican state Rep. Tom Craddick (search) set his sights on the Texas House speaker's job and quietly began lining up support from fellow lawmakers.
At the same time, Craddick began doling out $152,000 to state House candidates from a political action committee created by rising Republican congressman Tom DeLay (search) of Texas, soon to become U.S. House majority leader.
In 2002, the GOP won a majority in the Texas Legislature, and Craddick got his prize: He was elected speaker.
Now, prosecutors want to know whether the $152,000 in payments amounted to influence-buying, and whether DeLay's PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority, was used to violate campaign finance law in other ways as well.
District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, has been conducting a grand jury investigation and has issued dozens of subpoenas in recent months.
Last week, Craddick and six legislators closely allied with him were ordered to turn over items relating to the election of the speaker. Those subpoenaed also include the PAC's treasurer as well as DeLay's daughter, Danielle Ferro, a GOP fund-raiser.
DeLay himself has not been subpoenaed and has not been publicly accused of any wrongdoing in the yearlong investigation.
The congressman, who looked to Craddick as a mentor while the two served in the Texas House together for six years, called the investigation "nothing more than a vindictive, typical Ronnie Earle process."
DeLay worked to orchestrate the Republicans' takeover of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction. And then he played a major behind-the-scenes role in a successful battle in the Legislature to redraw Texas' congressional districts to tighten the Republicans' hold on the U.S. House. The fight led to two out-of-state walkouts by the Democrats.
State law prohibits the offering a financial benefit to influence the election of a Texas House speaker.
"During the course of the investigation into the activities of TRMPAC, possible criminal conduct in connection with the race for speaker of the Texas House of Representatives was uncovered," Earle said in a statement last week.
Craddick spokesman Bob Richter said there was no connection between the checks Craddick distributed and the race for speaker. "He's denying that those checks were delivered with an attempt to buy a vote," Richter said.
The investigation initially focused on the use of corporate campaign contributions during the 2002 elections. State law prohibits corporate contributions from being used to elect candidates to the Legislature.
On a single day in 2002, the Republican National Committee made $190,000 in contributions to seven Texas House candidates. A short time before, DeLay's PAC donated the same amount of money from corporate sources to the RNC.
That raised suspicions that DeLay's PAC may have been trying to evade campaign finance laws by laundering the corporate money through the RNC.
Republicans claim Earle has long used his office for political gain.
Among the politicians he has tangled with is Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Earle accused her of using her previous office as state treasurer for personal and political purposes. But he abruptly dropped his case in 1994 before it could go to trial.
"He did it to Kay Bailey Hutchison and lost that case," DeLay said Tuesday. "He's done it to other people so he can get press but doesn't even carry through and file charges. This is an attempt to criminalize politics and we have a runaway district attorney in Texas."
After DeLay's daughter was subpoenaed, DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella sneered Wednesday: "Ronnie Earle has stooped to the level of subpoenaing the majority leader's daughter, whose role was limited to selecting the caterer for a function. Who's next? The florist?"