WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, said Wednesday he would temporarily step down as House majority leader after he and two political associates were charged by a Texas grand jury with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme.
"In accordance with the rules of the House Republican Conference, I will temporarily step aside as floor leader in order to win exoneration from these baseless charges," DeLay told reporters.
The indictment charges that DeLay, 58, conspired to have corporate contributions funneled through his political action committee to help Republican state candidates. The $155,000 in funds from companies, including Sears Roebuck, was allegedly handed over from the PAC in a $190,000 check to the Republican National Committee (search), which was also given a list of Texas state House candidates and the sums they were to receive. The indictment included a copy of the check.
"The defendants entered into an agreement with each other or with TRMPAC (Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee) to knowingly make a political contribution in violation of the Texas election code," says the four-page indictment. "The contribution was made directly to the Republican National Committee within 60 days of a general election."
Rep. Roy Blunt (search), R-Mo., 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.
The indictment stems from a plan DeLay helped set in motion in 2001 to help Republicans win control of the Texas House in the 2002 elections for the first time since Reconstruction.
DeLay told FOX News' Brit Hume in an exclusive interview that he, although he set up TRMPAC, he was not involved in any of the group's dealings or day-to-day operations.
"I had no fiduciary responsibility. I had no managerial responsibility. I and four other elected officials were on an advisory board. I went to five fundraisers," DeLay said. "They did use my name to raise money, but that was the extent. So, I didn't know what they were doing."
DeLay also accused Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is leading the investigation, of pursuing the case for political motives.
"He is a fanatic, a liberal political fanatic," DeLay fumed.
However, the grand jury's foreman, William Gibson, told The Associated Press that Earle didn't pressure members to indict DeLay.
"Ronnie Earle didn't indict him. The grand jury indicted him," Gibson said in an interview at his home.
Gibson, 76, a retired sheriff's deputy, said of DeLay: "He's probably doing a good job. I don't have anything against him. Just something happened."
"I think largely because of his effectiveness as a leader, [DeLay] became a target," Blunt said. "We all believe that he'll return once this indictment is out of the way. That's what the rules call for."
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.
"I would hope he would just step aside until the matter is resolved," Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., told FOX News, but that "doesn't mean he won't still be involved."
DeLay appeared before reporters after the charges were released. He said he "has done nothing wrong, violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House." He called the indictment "baseless" and a "sham" and said he will prove his innocence based on the facts and the law.
"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 attorney Steve Brittain said his client was accused of one charge of criminal conspiracy along with two associates, John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political committee. If convicted, the charge carries a sentence of six months to two years and up to $10,000 in fines.
DeLay's successor, 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.
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 others 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.
Democrats, who have long accused DeLay of ethical impropriety, made much of the indictment, which came just days after federal authorities began a criminal inquiry into Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist over his sale of stock in a family-founded hospital company.
The indictment against the second-ranking, and most assertive Republican leader came on the final day of the grand jury's term. It followed earlier indictments of a state political action committee founded by DeLay and three of his political associates.
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.
"I happen to have a copy of the indictment in my hand right here and I think the indictment has some problems," said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who said Earle pursued the indictment for three years and six grand juries because he knew that under House rules, there would be "instant punishment as the result of an indictment."
The indictment has "escalated politics into the courthouse," Carter told FOX News.
"This is a ham sandwich indictment and we just ask 'where's the beef?'" said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. "[Earle] just wants to harm Tom DeLay for being an effective Republican leader."
Kevin Madden, DeLay's spokesman, also dismissed the charge as politically motivated.
"This indictment is nothing more than prosecutorial retribution by a partisan Democrat," Madden said, citing Earle.
"We regret the people of Texas will once again have their taxpayer dollars wasted on Ronnie Earle's pursuit of headlines and political paybacks."
Lott said it's no coincidence that Earle has a history of going after those in political office.
"We've got an active district attorney, a prosecutor that really wants to indict somebody," Lott told FOX News. "He can indict a ham sandwhich before most grand juries. When you look at the record of this prosecutor, I can't say I'm particularly surprised."
Democrats have kept up a crescendo of criticism of DeLay's ethics.
"The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Former Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, told FOX News that the DeLay indictment is "long overdue" and defended Earle, saying he has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans during his career. "He's a fine, upstanding district attorney with a fine record," said Bell, who was defeated in a re-election bid last year after the state map was redistricted.
With the help of the donations, DeLay has been accused of having had wide influence in helping the state GOP-led legislature rewrite the map to benefit Texas Republican U.S. House candidates. In 2004, the GOP won six House seats from Texas Democrats.
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.
DeLay said he will eventually prevail, even if it means being out of the leadership post for a long time.
"I'm innocent. The truth is on my side and the facts are on my side. That's why this is just the worst travesty of justice I have ever seen, he said."
FOX News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.