Partisan District Attorney Pursues Tom DeLay

Is a partisan Democratic prosecutor in Texas going to hit House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) with a politically motivated indictment for allegedly violating state election law? If so, DeLay could be forced to resign his House leadership position under House rules.

For the past six months, Travis County (Austin) District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who secured an indictment of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Tex.) in 1993 on a charge that was eventually dropped, has been probing for violations of election law by DeLay and Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee DeLay launched to elect a Republican state legislature in 2002.

Under Earle, two grand juries have so far been impaneled to investigate DeLay’s TRMPAC as well as the Texas Association of Business and their deployment of a combined $3.4 million to help Republicans win their historic majorities in both houses of the Texas legislature two years ago.

That victory has had a powerful impact on national politics. Led by Republican State House Speaker Tom Craddick, the state legislature redrew Texas’ 32 U.S. House districts, giving Republicans a good chance to elect six new congressmen. Earle’s probe, DeLay told reporters in March, is “retribution for redistricting against the Democrats in Texas.”

Texas has few campaign finance regulations. Individuals and PACs can give any amount to any candidate for state office so long as it is reported. Corporations and unions, however, cannot make contributions. Earle is investigating whether TRMPAC broke the law by using corporate money for contributions.

Sources close to DeLay told me TRMPAC raised and spent more than $1.5 million to elect Republican legislators in 2002, all of it “hard money” from individual donors. But it also kept a separate account that included about $600,000 in “soft money” from corporate donations that was used exclusively for administrative expenses–salaries, fund-raising, polling–and never used for any candidate. The year’s salary for TRMPAC operating head John Colyandro came from the corporate account and in September 2002, TRMPAC donated $190,000 in corporate money to the Republican National Committee (before campaign finance laws outlawing the practice took effect).

Using separate corporate money to operate a state PAC, DeLay operatives note, is perfectly legal and is done by many PACs in Texas. Nonetheless, Earle has subpoenaed DeLay’s daughter and top fund-raiser, Danielle Ferro, and is also investigating whether Craddick violated laws banning PACs from influencing the speaker’s race by personally handing out $152,000 in TRMPAC checks to 14 Republican legislative candidates.

As slim as the case against DeLay may be, many Republicans still worry, remembering1993 when Earle made headlines by indicting Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Tex.) for keeping files on politics and fund-raising on her office computer while she was state treasurer. According to press reports, Hutchinson’s Democratic predecessor as treasurer, then-Gov. Ann Richards, had similar files in her office (where Richards’ secretary was Earle’s wife). Earle later dropped the charges against Hutchison.

But under House rules, even a frivolous indictment against DeLay would force him to relinquish his leadership position until it was resolved. Last week, another House Republican leader signaled strong support for DeLay. “I have worked closely with Tom for the last five years,” House GOP Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) told me. “He is very, very careful about the law and what it allows. I am convinced he acted appropriately.”