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U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay indicted, steps down as majority leader

By Jennifer Bendery,

Austin, TX –

Nearly two and a half years after helping to craft a plan to boost Republican control in the Texas House, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) on Wednesday was indicted by a Travis County grand jury of criminal conspiracy to violate the Texas Election Code.

In addition to DeLay, the indictment names John Colyandro, executive director of the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC), and James Ellis, executive director of Americans for a Republican Majority, as co-conspirators. Colyandro and Ellis previously were indicted for both conspiracy to violate the Election Code and money laundering.

Today's charges accuse DeLay of conspiring with Ellis and Colyandro to violate the Texas Election Code by contributing corporate money to seven 2002 Texas House candidates. The indictment describes a scheme whereby $190,000 in corporate, or "soft" money, was sent to the Republican National Committee where it was exchanged for "hard" money, or money raised from individuals, and sent to those candidates.

Specifically, the indictment reads that accused parties "did enter into an agreement with one or more of each other or with a general purpose political committee known as Texans for a Republican Majority PAC that one or more of them would engage in conduct that would constitute the offense of knowingly making a political contribution" in violation of the Texas Election Code. Criminal conspiracy is a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years and a fine of up to $10,000.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said there have been a total of 41 indictments and 81 counts returned against individuals and corporations for campaign finance violations relating to the 2002 Texas state elections. When asked if there are more indictments coming, he said today's grand jury "leaves the office today" but it is "entirely possible" that another grand jury could be put together.

Asked if today's indictments were a last resort prosecution since time is running out on the case, Earle said his job is to prosecute "the abuse of power, and you have to have power before you can abuse it." He said he expected harsh attacks from DeLay's attorneys because they believe taking that stance is "what others would do. I also don't know what else they would say." The district attorney added that it is now up to the court to decide if DeLay must turn himself in.

Shortly after the indictments were released, DeLay issued a statement that he would temporarily step down as majority leader, pursuant to rules of the House Republican Conference and the actions of the Travis County grand jury. "But let me be very, very clear," he said. "I have done nothing unlawful, unethical or, I might add, unprecedented."

The Texas legislator better known as "The Hammer" also wasn't about to step down quietly. DeLay said today's indictments are "the product of a coordinated, pre-meditated plan of political retribution" formulated by Earle, who is a "partisan fanatic" and "an unabashed political zealot." The charges are "the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history," he said. "It is a sham, and Ronnie Earle knows it."

Several consumer advocacy groups issued statements applauding today's indictments. "No one can undo the outcome of Texas' 2002 elections," said Texans for Public Justice (TPJ) director Craig McDonald. "But the justice system must punish those who criminally conspire to undermine democracy, no matter how powerful they may be."

In March of 2003, TPJ filed a formal complaint with the Travis County District Attorney requesting an investigation into what appeared to be DeLay's unlawful use of corporate funds. "We applaud the District Attorney's office for unraveling what appears to be a complex conspiracy to hijack Texas elections," said McDonald. He added that Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) should resign his leadership post because of "his own close involvement with TRMPAC."

Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen said today's indictments represent "a huge step in ending the takeover of Texas government that was financed with illegal corporate contributions by a coterie of corporations, their associations and their hired gun lobbyists." He reminded that there are still ongoing criminal and civil investigations that may result in future action against unindicted co-conspirators, such as "the governor's former chief-of-staff, the head of the largest business association in Texas and other veteran political consultants."

Democrats praised today's indictments as a victory for justice. Today's action shows that DeLay "can no longer hold himself above the law," said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting. "This man organized and managed a criminal political enterprise in Texas," he said. "Republicans, Democrats and Independents all lost their voice due to the activities he will now have to answer for."

Chris Bell, a Texas gubernatorial candidate and the former congressman who filed an ethics complaint against DeLay, said today's indictment "makes it obvious that the House Ethics Committee needs to finally launch a full investigation" into his complaint. While even Democratic leaders had asked him to back off from filing his ethics complaint, Bell said it is now "clear that the corruption in Texas goes all the way to the top and that his cash and carry criminality has infected all levels of Texas government."

Texas Republicans on Capitol Hill reminded that DeLay is innocent until proven guilty. "He deserves the chance to tell his story," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who is also the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. She noted that she is very concerned about recent news leaks predicting what happened today. "Those leaks taint the judicial process and should never happen," she said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) said DeLay has long been "the subject of a partisan witch hunt by Ronnie Earle and the media that has ultimately led to a distorted public image of assumed guilt." He pledged his support for DeLay and lashed out at the media for being "quick to cover a story aimed at the personal destruction of a high-profile individual."