HOUSTON – Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Monday he always knew a Justice Department probe of his ties to disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff would end without criminal charges being filed against him because he did nothing wrong.
DeLay said he wishes the investigation hadn't taken six years, but added he isn't bitter.
"I know this is the price of leadership, but it doesn't have to happen this way," the 11-term Republican from suburban Houston told reporters during a conference call. "I hope people will look at my case and decide the criminalization of politics and the politics of personal destruction is not beneficial to our country and hopefully it will stop."
Still, DeLay's legal problems are not over. He and two associates face money laundering and conspiracy charges in Texas connected to 2002 state legislative elections. A court hearing in that case is set for next week.
"I still have a trial to go through," DeLay said, referring to the Texas case. "I'm hoping to win that. I know I will."
Prosecutors say DeLay and his co-defendants funneled $190,000 in corporate money through the Republican National Committee in Washington then back to state legislative candidates in violation of state law.
Earlier Monday, one of DeLay's lawyers, Richard Cullen, announced the Justice Department's Office of Public Integrity informed DeLay's legal team last week that it was ending its investigation of his ties to Abramoff. Politico.com first reported the closing of the probe.
Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to comment on the end of DeLay's case, which is normal when the department ends a criminal probe without filing charges.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the Justice Department's decision sends the wrong message to current and future Congressional members.
"'The Hammer' belongs in the slammer," Sloan said, a reference to DeLay's nickname, which he got for his tenacity and toughness in politics.
The investigation focused on DeLay's ties to Abramoff, who was once one of Washington's leading lobbyists and cultivated relationships with top Republican leaders.
Abramoff became the center of a federal public corruption probe that ensnared lawmakers, lobbyists, Bush administration officials, businessmen and congressional staffers. Two of DeLay's former associates, Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy, have pleaded guilty to charges in the Abramoff case and have cooperated with investigators.
DeLay said he has no regrets about how he conducted himself with Abramoff, who served about 3 1/2 years in prison for fraud, corruption and conspiracy and currently is working in a kosher pizzeria in northwest Baltimore.
DeLay's political committee used a skybox leased by Abramoff to entertain donors. DeLay also took trips organized or arranged by Abramoff.
On Monday, DeLay continued calling Abramoff "a friend of mine" and said the trips he took while in Congress were not "horrible" and that he wanted these trips to be paid for by private organizations and not taxpayers.
"The thing that bothers me the most is not that people think I'm corrupt but that people think I'm stupid. I knew the Democrats were going to come after me," he said. "Everything was absolutely above board, transparent, according to the House rules."
At the height of his political career, DeLay was one of the most powerful men in Congress. DeLay was a darling of conservatives, while Democrats largely despised him. But in 2005, he stepped down as majority leader, the No. 2 House job, after he was indicted in Texas.
The following year, he resigned from Congress amid the fallout from the charges in Texas and the probe of his ties to Abramoff.
In 2009, DeLay competed on ABC's hit show "Dancing With the Stars." He withdrew from the dance-off after being diagnosed with stress fractures in both feet.
DeLay said he now runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land and is focused on rebuilding the conservative movement, including offering support to the tea party movement.
Associated Press Writer Pete Yost contributed to this report from Washington.