WASHINGTON – Lawyers for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) were at the criminal justice center in Austin on Wednesday, waiting to learn whether a grand jury — in the final hours of its term — would indict the Texas Republican in a campaign finance investigation.
"It's a skunky indictment if they have one," DeLay attorney Bill White told reporters. "Like a dead skunk in the middle of the road. It stinks to high heaven."
Lawyers with knowledge of the case said the DeLay defense team was concerned that the Travis County grand jury might consider counts of conspiracy to violate the state election code.
Their concern was triggered when similar charges were handed down two weeks ago in an expanded indictment against two DeLay political associates. The associates were accused of conspiring to violate the state election code by using corporate donations for illegal purposes.
House GOP rules require any member of the elected leadership to step down temporarily if indicted, and it would be up to the rank and file to select an interim replacement. Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., could make a recommendation, whether choosing to elevate another member of the leadership or tapping an alternative to reduce the possibility of a struggle if DeLay were cleared and then sought to reclaim his post.
The Associated Press spoke to several lawyers familiar with the case, all of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. DeLay, R-Texas, said Tuesday that prosecutors have interviewed him. He has insisted he committed no crimes and says Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, was pursuing the case for political reasons.
Before the recent conspiracy (search) counts, the investigation was more narrowly focused on the state election code. By expanding the charges to include conspiracy, prosecutors made it possible for the grand jury to bring charges against DeLay. Otherwise, the grand jury would have lacked jurisdiction under state laws.
Asked Tuesday what he had heard of any late developments, DeLay said Tuesday, "Not a word."
He also said he earlier "had an interview" with prosecutors, adding, "everybody knows that."
The 11-term congressman has served as No. 2 in the House GOP leadership for three years, credited with maintaining iron discipline within the party and keeping Republicans in control of the chamber. He has retained the loyalty of most party members despite running into ethical problems last year.
In a rare rebuke of a House leader, the House ethics committee admonished DeLay three times for pressuring a fellow congressman, involving the Federal Aviation Administration in a political dispute and discussing energy legislation with lobbyists at a golf outing.
The grand jury's finale coincides with a wide swath of political trouble for the GOP. Ethical questions have been raised about stock sales by the Republican leader of the Senate, Bill Frist, R-Tenn. And President Bush, an uneasy ally of DeLay, faces the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.
The Texas grand jury has charged that corporate donations given to Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee — formed by DeLay — were used to support state candidates in violation of state law. Texas law prohibits corporate money to be used to advocate the election or defeat of candidates; it is allowed only for administrative expenses.
Once DeLay helped Republicans win control of the state Legislature in 2002, the majority leader engineered a Republican redistricting plan that helped give the state's U.S. House delegation a 21-11 majority in the current Congress. The effort helped Republicans increase their House margin by five seats this year.
Three of DeLay's political associates, the PAC itself, several corporate donors and a Texas business organization have been indicted, while DeLay has not.
The legal sources said that if the case had remained solely under the state election code, DeLay could only be indicted in his home county, Fort Bend.
The grand jury has charged that Texans for a Republican Majority and the Texas Association of Business worked together to circumvent the election code and funnel "massive amounts of secret corporate wealth" into campaigns, said Earle, the Travis County prosecutor.
Ellis heads DeLay's national political committee, Americans for a Republican Majority. Colyandro is former executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority. They had been indicted previously on charges of laundering $190,000 in corporate donations.
The conspiracy counts against Ellis and Colyandro could bring a punishment of 180 days to 2 years and a fine of up to $10,000.