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The Tom Delay Indictment

September 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFLL: The combative House majority leader is certainly one of the Capitol’s most powerful lawmakers. Today, he was forced to step aside from his leadership role after a three-year state investigation into Texas campaign fundraising yielded another in a series of indictments; this one of Mr. DeLay himself. He’s charged with participating in a criminal conspiracy to illegally steer corporate money to state legislative candidates in 2002.

For more on the impact of today’s indictment, and what happens next, we turn to: Laylan Copelin of the Austin American-Statesman. He’s been following the DeLay investigation since it began; and longtime Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

GWEN IFILL: Laylan Copelin how did this all begin?

LAYLAN COPELIN: It began in 2002 right after the Republicans had a landslide victory here in Austin and they actually started bragging about how they did it using corporate money and in Texas you cannot use corporate money in connection with a campaign. And from that, we started following the story of how did they raise the money what did they do and that’s what led ultimately to Tom DeLay and his organization TRMPAC.

GWEN IFLL: So explain TRMPAC stands for Texans –

LAYLAN COPELIN: — for a Republican Majority.

GWEN IFLL: So explain to us, connect the dots for us here, you’re saying there was money raised from some corporations, Texas corporations that was not supposed to be spent on state races?

LAYLAN COPELIN: Right. DeLay had an associate, Warren Robold, who raised money from lobbyists in Washington, D.C., corporate money, and they used it, Texans for a Republican Majority used it for consultants and phone banks and fund-raisers and so forth. They claim that that was legal because it was committee overhead; however, the DA is charging that money was — illegally found its way into campaigns.

Specifically, there was a $100,000 check that went from Austin to the Republican National Convention –

GWEN IFLL: Committee.

LAYLAN COPELIN: And that’s what made the indictment today.

GWEN IFLL: So the indictment is suggesting that this money was basically laundered through an arm of the Republican National Committee?

LAYLAN COPELIN: Exactly; $190,000 of corporate money went to the RNC — the same amount non-corporate money came back to seven Texas candidates. The DeLay people say there is nothing wrong with the transaction; there’s nothing usual about it and that he didn’t even know about it until after the fact.

GWEN IFLL: So what is Tom DeLay’s connection to Texans for a Republican Majority?

LAYLAN COPELIN: He created it. It was modeled after his very successful Americans for a Republican majority; and the idea the was they wanted to help elect Republicans to the state legislature, which, in turn, gave DeLay the new congressional districts that he wanted to bring more Republicans to support him in Washington.

GWEN IFLL: With money laundering cases the tough part is proving that the money that went into the pot is the same that came out of the pot on the other end. Was there anything in the indictment today that tipped the prosecutor’s hand on the kind of evidence he has on that?

LAYLAN COPELIN: For DeLay, no, it was very general. The money laundering aspect had been brought against Ellis — Jim Ellis and John Colyandro, two associates of DeLay Today’s indictment just accused the majority leader of conspiring to violate state law. So I’m not even sure how much of the money laundering they’ll have to prove legally, but that transaction is the basis under the indictment.

GWEN IFLL: Tom DeLay had pretty tough words for the Travis County DA Ronnie Earle today; he called him a partisan fanatic. Is there a history of bad blood between these two men?

LAYLAN COPELIN: Oh, yeah. For the past three years they have exchanged words from time to time. I believe the DA once said being called partisan is like being called ugly by a frog. They don’t seem to like one another.

GWEN IFLL: Wow I’d say that’s an understatement.

Norm Ornstein what is behind all of this? This is a pretty big fish for a county prosecutor to attempt to about catch, but it’s because Tom DeLay has some responsibility for the success of the GOP majority in Congress?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, there’s no question that among the things that DeLay has tried to do is to make sure that the Republican majority, which they achieved in 1994 for the first time 40 years and have held on to ever since by narrow margins, could hold on even at times of adversity.

And I think the expectation many Republicans in the House — if you talked to them a couple of years ago — believed that if they could get a cushion of another five or six seats, get the majority up to fifteen, which is where it is now, that even if there were a tidal wave of public discontent just because t here are so few unsafe seats and competitive seats they could hold on.

Doing a re-redistricting of Texas — something we haven’t seen in 100 years except when court-ordered — in between censuses was the way to do this. And the way to achieve it in Texas was to get that inflated majority in both Houses of the Texas legislature that would then agree to do a second round of redistricting and to do it on the path that DeLay wanted. So that’s what’s behind this. The ways in which he did it are what led to this indictment but, of course, Mr. DeLay has been embattled in a number of other areas, in ethics in Congress, and political attacks beyond that.

GWEN IFLL: As Laylan Copelin was just saying, there is a history of bad blood between these two gentlemen. Is there any way of tracking that for the purposes of a national race?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: I don’t think that you could track that particularly. Ronnie Earle has been known for some time for bringing indictments on offenses involving violations of ethics and politics. The most celebrated and the one which has really led to the charges that he’s a partisan was an indictment against Kay Bailey Hutchinson on the eve of her race for the Senate in Texas, which got — went nowhere but he has indicted far more Democrats than Republicans.

So the fact that this has been going on some time, that others were indicted then re-indicted, that judges in Texas have said that indeed using corporate money in this way is a violation of the Texas law provides at least some backing behind an indictment here.

But whether an indictment leads to a conviction is another matter. In the meantime, under the rule of the Republican Conference in the House, which they tried to change but couldn’t, he has been forced to step back from his position as majority leader.

GWEN IFLL: What effect does that have practically?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well certainly it’s bad for him; it’s a terrible embarrassment for the House Republicans; it’s an immense distraction and they are scrambling now. What they’ve done is to have the current majority whip, the person right behind him in line, move up the rung now to be acting majority leader while retaining his role, and then the person behind him, Eric Cantor, move up as well and the chairman of the Rules Committee also stepping in to help work with the leadership roles.

GWEN IFLL: Didn’t the House Republicans try to change that rule last year –

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: In January.

GWEN IFILL: — so if DeLay did get indicted he wouldn’t have to give up his leadership role?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Exactly so, Gwen. They anticipated the strong prospect of an indictment, thought it would come much earlier and tried to change the rules so that he could stay as leader. There was a firestorm of criticism; they rolled that back in April of this year and so he now has to step down at least temporarily but temporarily means presumably until a trial is over, which could be many, many months.

GWEN IFLL: And this is not the only investigation which has been circling around him.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Keep in mind that back in 1998, Mr. DeLay was rebuked by the Ethics Committee for intervening when a trade association was hiring its chief and tried to get them from hiring a Democrat and threatened them if they didn’t hire a Republican. Then he was admonished three separate times in 2002 for a variety of ethics violations, one of which was tied to this particular case; it was going to the Federal Aviation Administration to track the Texas legislators, the Democrats, when they left town.

And there’s been a pending investigation of this particular issue, which now will be put off. But the Ethics Committee and Mr. DeLay are well acquainted and there are many other issues pending, including a number involving this lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a completely separate set of issues that are Washington base.

So despite the fact that he’s stepping down as leader, he remains a member of Congress, a trusted advisor of the other leaders and the president and –

GWEN IFLL: Who defended him today.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Who defended him today; all of them did — and he now has to deal with what may be other charges that could emerge later on in other extraneous matters.

GWEN IFLL: Laylan Copelin, how big a political figure is Tom DeLay in Texas?

LAYLAN COPELIN: Oh, he’s huge. He’s the second most powerful Texan in Washington for us, and he had a high profile in Austin, Texas, where Ronnie Earle is the prosecutor because he personally came down and lobbied to — for the new congressional maps, which included splitting up Travis County, which is — used to be a Democratic stronghold, and also trying to isolate the Congressman Lloyd Doggett here. So the Democrats here are very aware of Tom DeLay so he has a very high profile in Texas.

GWEN IFLL: And, Norm Ornstein, with Bill Frist under investigation by the SEC for stock holding — stock sale; now Tom DeLay under this indictment, is there a cloud over the Republicans in Congress right now?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: This has been an awful week. And you combine it with the problems that they faced with Katrina and these other investigations of Mr. Abramoff, which include other members of Congress as well, and there has to be a fear that this could create a larger presumption that those in power have a climate of corruption around them.

There’s a parallel here that’s becoming more clear and apparent, In the early 1990s, when the Democrats controlled all reigns of power they had a scandal from the House bank, a speaker forced to resign and then in the year leading up to 1994, the Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, a powerful figure, an icon, was indicted, removed from his post, and that really was a springboard to a Republican sweep. Democrats are hoping this will be the same.

GWEN IFLL: Okay. Norm Ornstein, Laylan Copelin in Austin, thank you both very much.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Sure, thank you Gwen.