Published September 29, 2005
WASHINGTON – A Texas judge has set Oct. 21 as the day Rep. Tom DeLay will make his first appearance in court to face one charge that he conspired to funnel illegal corporate money through national Republican Party accounts to local Texas campaigns.
DeLay was indicted Wednesday, launching a firestorm on Capitol Hill over ethics and "a culture of corruption."
After using those choice words a day earlier, on Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (search) of California said the Bush administration's handling of the rebuilding from Katrina, DeLay's indictment and recent probes of Republicans on questions of partisan favoritism, all demonstrate a serious ethical and possibly criminal streak in the GOP.
"The Katrina response remains plagued by cronyism, cronyism that gives jobs to the friends of the Bush administration without qualifications for those jobs," Pelosi told reporters. She also assailed a recent meeting in Washington led by government contractor Halliburton, the firm previously run by Vice President Dick Cheney, to discuss hurricane contracting opportunities.
"An ethical cloud hangs over the Capitol," Pelosi said. "This culture of curruption must stop. ... The American people deserve better."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, joined Pelosi, and called on President Bush (search) and other Republicans to appoint a "corruption czar" who would oversee all contracts related to hurricane relief efforts.
"We need someone to make sure that money goes to rebuilding businesses, homes and lives, not for lining the pockets of well-connected contractors," Reid said.
Both Reid and Pelosi said they would support a Democratic challenger — former Texas Rep. Nick Lampson — to try to oust DeLay from his seat. Lampson, who was defeated in 2004 by Republican Rep. Ted Poe, lost many of his constituents to Tom DeLay's district after the state was remapped before the 2004 election.
Democrats have also used the DeLay indictment to point to a string of inquiries against Republicans in recent months. On Thursday, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it was investigating HCA, the company founded by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's father. Frist is also being probed for selling HCA stocks in a blind trust right before the stock's value dropped.
But rather than sit quietly, DeLay and fellow Republicans went on the offensive to combat what they say is nothing more than a partisan attack on a powerful politician and Bush loyalist who was able to help cement the Republican stronghold in Congress.
"The tragedy of Tom DeLay's indictment has unified the conference in a different way," said Rep. Tom Reynolds, of New York, chairman of the GOP House campaign committee. "Most people see this as a political indictment."
And DeLay's status might not take as much a hit as originally thought, one party leader's spokesman said Thursday.
"His experience and insight for over a decade of the Republican majority is invaluable to our leadership and to our members and will be used wisely," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Bonjean said Hastert and DeLay — two longtime allies — met privately in the Capitol, Thursday. The spokesman said DeLay would remain a "very powerful adviser" to party leaders.
On Wednesday, DeLay, who was forced to step down from his majority leadership position as a result of the indictment, said he was innocent of the charge, and the facts were on his side. He also lashed out at the Texas prosecuting attorney who has been investigating DeLay for more than two years.
"He is a fanatic, a liberal political fanatic," DeLay told FOX News' Brit Hume, referring to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (search).
"This has been going on for two years — multiple grand juries," DeLay told Hume. "And then they come out with an indictment that my own lawyers don't know what I'm charged with."
DeLay faces a single count of felony conspiracy to shuffle corporate donations, specifically $155,000 from companies including Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Bacardi USA Inc., from his political action committee, Texas for a Republican Majority PAC, to the national Republican Party and then back to state candidate campaigns. Texas law prohibits corporate donations to candidates.
Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was given the majority leader position for the time being on Wednesday.
DeLay is charged with two of his political associates, John Colyandro and James Ellis. DeLay says his associates ran the day-to-day operations of the PAC, and he did not know that a $190,000 contribution to TRMPAC would be given to the national party, to then be turned around to state campaigns.
Terry Nelson, a former Republican Natoinal Committee official, was one of the witnessess before the Texas grand jury that indicted DeLay, said an official familiar with the deliberations who did not wish to be identified. It was Nelson who received the $190,000 check from Ellis as well as a list of candidates for the Texas House of Representatives who were to get earmarks from the check, according to the indictment.
Court documents in the case also show that DeLay's daughter, political consultant Danielle Ferro, was subpoenaed in early 2004 to appear before the grand jury and bring records of work she did for TRMPAC.
Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., told FOX News that Republicans are looking forward to DeLay's situation being resolved fairly, while Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., hammered at the idea of a Republican pattern of abuse.
"This isn't just about Tom DeLay," Israel said.
Israel said DeLay's charge is linked with Frist's stock sale problems; the ongoing investigation into the dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has close ties to DeLay; the connection between White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's undercover identity; and the recent arrest of a Bush administration purchasing official.
"This is what happens when you have one party running the whole deal," Israel said.
But Foley said he is supportive of DeLay.
"In this country, we're innocent until proven guilty. Mr. DeLay deserves that presumption. I'm not going to attack Ronnie Earle, and I'm certainly not going to abandon Tom DeLay. ... Let this work its course," Foley said.
Foley added that Israel's description of Republicans is unfair.
"I could cite a litany of violations by Democrats but that would do us no good," Foley said. He said instead of engaging in a "lynch mob mentality," Democrats should be focusing on other problems like high gas prices and rising insurance rates, for which the public wants action.
"They want solutions," Foley said.
In what appears to be the first such action, one Republican congressman told the New Hampshire Union Leader he would return the $15,000 he received from another PAC started by DeLay. Rep. Jeb. Bradley, of New Hampshire, said that although the PAC from which he was given money is not under investigation, he wanted to clear the air about the contribution.
Blunt, the majority whip, will step in to take over DeLay's responsibilities. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who is deputy whip, will share extra duties and Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chairman of the Rules Committee, will also help out the leadership in conducting daily business, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., announced Wednesday afternoon after a meeting of the Republican caucus.
"What we do here is more important than who we are," Blunt said Wednesday. "We have an agenda to move forward here."
According to GOP rules in the House, DeLay must step down from his position as House majority leader, at least temporarily, if indicted on a criminal charge that carries a sentence of two years or more if convicted. DeLay retains his seat representing Texas' 22nd Congressional District, suburbs southwest of Houston.
Blunt also has a connection with Ellis, federal records show.
Since May 2003, Blunt's political action committee, the Rely on Your Beliefs Fund, has paid at least $88,000 to Ellis' firm, the J.W. Ellis Co., for political consulting and fundraising. The spending figures were compiled from government records by the nonpartisan Political Money Line, a campaign finance tracking service.
Keri Ann Hayes, executive director of the Rely on Your Beliefs Fund (search), said officials of the organization have not discussed whether to end the relationship with Ellis in light of his indictment.
"We haven't had that conversation," she said, adding that so far, Ellis' indictment had no impact on his work.
In an afternoon press conference, Earle would not say whether other counts were sought against DeLay. He said money laundering and conspiracy to evade election law charges had been previously brought against Colyandro and Ellis. Earle would not discuss any evidence that he presented to the grand jury, saying they are elements that will be brought up in trial.
"The law says that the duty of the prosecuting attorney is not to convict but to see that justice is done," Earle said. "Our job is to prosecute abuses of power ... that's what we do when we find a violation of law."
By any measure, DeLay's indictment was historic. A Senate historian, Donald Ritchie, said after researching the subject, "There's never been a member of Congress in a leadership position who has been indicted."
Two other members of Congress have been indicted since 1996. Former Rep. William Janklow, R-S.D., was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to 100 days in prison after his car struck and killed a motorcyclist in 2003. Former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted on charges from a 2001 indictment accusing him of racketeering and accepting bribes.
Two other House members, California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson are both facing investigations over alleged improprieties relating to the privilege of their offices.
DeLay has been in the center of an ethics swirl in Washington. The 11-term congressman was admonished last year by the House Ethics Committee on three separate issues and is the center of a political storm this year over lobbyists paying his and other lawmakers' tabs for expensive travel abroad.
As a sign of loyalty to DeLay after the grand jury returned indictments against three of his associates, House Republicans last November repealed a rule requiring any of their leaders to step aside if indicted. The rule was reinstituted in January after lawmakers returned to Washington from the holidays fearing the repeal might create a backlash from voters.
On Wednesday, another crescendo of support came from Republican leaders.
"It is our sincere hope that justice will remain blind to politics. As Tom DeLay clearly stated today, House Republicans will continue to focus on the business of the American people," party Chairman Ken Mehlman said in a statement that did not assert the Texan's innocence.
Dreier, Blunt Shuffling
After DeLay's indictment forced him to step down, there were some quick moves made by top party leaders.
Several officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an aide to Hastert contacted Dreier on Monday about assuming the majority leader's duties in the event DeLay was indicted. Several lawmakers said such a change would have made it easier for the Texan to eventually regain his post.
But by Tuesday, as the grand jury completed its work in Austin, Texas, Blunt forcefully asserted his claim to the job in conversations with the speaker, according to several GOP officials.
At the same time, conservative lawmakers quickly made known their unhappiness with Dreier as a potential stand-in for DeLay.
At a private midday meeting, several conservative lawmakers argued that Dreier's voting record was too moderate. According to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, some participants in the meeting said the Californian had voted in favor of expanded federal funding for stem cell research and against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. There also was grumbling that the Californian favored a less restrictive policy on immigration than many conservatives.
"There was a lot of discussion in that room about will ... he advance the conservative agenda?" said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who attended the meeting and said he personally would have been comfortable with Dreier in the post.
Other officials said a show of hands near the end of the session showed support for a postponement in selecting a temporary majority leader if it were to be Dreier. A delegation was dispatched to inform Hastert, who in the meantime had decided to recommend Blunt instead.
The speaker presented his recommendation not long afterward at a closed-door meeting of the rank and file, saying it was designed as a stopgap solution.
But even then some lawmakers expressed concern about inadvertently making an open-ended commitment, and Hastert pledged that the issue could be reopened in three months' time.
FOX News' Brian Wilson and The Associate Press contributed to this report.