Tom DeLay indicted by Austin grand jury

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted by a Texas grand jury last Wednesday on a charge of conspiring to violate political fundraising laws, forcing him to temporarily step aside from his GOP post, the Associated Press reported.

On Monday, a grand jury indicted DeLay on a new charge of money laundering.

DeLay is the highest-ranking member of Congress to face criminal prosecution.

DeLay said he had done nothing wrong and denounced Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle who pursued the case as a "partisan fanatic."

The San Antonio Express-News reported that an attorney for DeLay, Dick DeGuerin, said the criminal case was nothing more than a political witch hunt by Earle.

But Earle said he was only doing his job and denied any political motive. He said he's prosecuted 15 elected officials in his nearly three decades in office - 12 of them Democrats.

According to the AP, the Travis County district attorney is one of Texas' most powerful Democrats and in 1994 worked toward the indictment of Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, but dropped the case during trial.

A spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Texas, Jennifer Webster, characterized Earle as "a small man with a big grudge."

With all statewide offices and both houses of the Legislature in the hands of Republicans, Earle is widely regarded as the only Democrat left in Texas with broad power and the ability to make life difficult for the GOP.

Nonetheless, DeLay's temporary departure and the prospect of a criminal trial for one of the Republicans' most visible leaders reverberated throughout the GOP-run Congress, which was already struggling with ethics questions surrounding its Senate leader.

Republicans quickly moved to fill the void, while voicing polite support for DeLay.

Ronnie Earle, the Democratic prosecutor in Austin who led the investigation, denied politics was involved.

DeLay, 58, was indicted on a single felony count of conspiring with two political associates. The two previously had been charged with the same conspiracy count. They are John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political committee, the AP reported.

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.

The grand jury accused the men of conspiring to route corporate donations from DeLay's Texas committee to the Republican Party in Washington, then returning the money back to Texas legislative candidates.

DeLay's conduct on separate issues was criticized by the House ethics committee last year.

DeLay's indictment was historic.

A Senate historian said there's never been a member of Congress in a leadership position who has been indicted.

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.

Criminal conspiracy is a Texas felony punishable by six months to two years in a state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. The potential two-year sentence forced DeLay to step down under House Republican rules.

Texas law prohibits corporate money from being used to advocate the election or defeat of candidates; the money can be used only for administrative expenses.

The indictment alleged that the DeLay-founded Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee accepted $155,000 from companies, including Sears Roebuck, and placed the money in an account.

The PAC then wrote a $190,000 check from that same account to an arm of the Republican National Committee and provided the committee a document with the names of Texas State House candidates and the amounts they were supposed to receive in donations, the AP reported.

Associated Press writers April Castro and Suzanne Gamboa in Austin and Special Correspondent David Espo in Washington contributed to this report.

Lisa Sandberg and Peggy Fikac of the Express-News also contributed to this report.


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