Texans for Public Justice

Political observers wonder whether campaign finance inquiry could force U.S. House majority leader to step down from GOP position
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By Chuck Lindell and Laylan Copelin, Friday, March 26, 2004

WASHINGTON -- In a conversation with fellow Republicans, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said he would be required to step down as the body's second-ranking Republican if indicted by a grand jury investigating whether campaign money was illegally spent in the 2002 Texas elections.

But whether that conversation was an offhand remark or a dire warning is subject to interpretation -- and grist for the hottest rumor swirling in Texas and on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Shortly before taking majority control of the U.S. House in 1994, Republicans adopted a rule requiring party leaders to vacate their posts if indicted on felony charges -- a fact DeLay noted during a weekly lunch meeting of Texas congressional Republicans on March 18.

U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, said DeLay mentioned the little-known rule during a discussion of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's investigation into campaign spending by the Texas Association of Business and the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, which was created at DeLay's direction.

"It was in the context of that conversation that we heard about the rule," Carter said. "He said there's nothing to (the investigation)."

But Roll Call, a newspaper that focuses on Congress, reported Thursday that DeLay was quietly warning Republicans about the possibility of stepping down.

The report launched a flurry of e-mails and telephone calls among Texas political observers, prompting a DeLay spokesman to note that speculation about the Sugar Land Republican's future is premature.

"He hasn't been notified that he is the subject of an investigation, he hasn't been subpoenaed. We anticipate at some point in time he will be asked to testify, but right now even that hasn't happened," DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy said.

Earle on Thursday dismissed the grand jury with no indictments. That was expected, and prosecutors anticipate presenting a summary of their year-long investigation to a new grand jury that will be impaneled next month and could serve up to six months, if necessary.

Republicans have criticized the inquiry by Earle, a Democrat, as a partisan witch hunt. "We don't anticipate anything that would enforce use of that rule," Roy said. "Our members know it was put in place for serious investigations, not for a partisan district attorney who is out to complete a political mission rather than a legal endeavor."

Other Republicans question how far Earle will go, citing the district attorney's 1993 ethics case against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. Hutchison was indicted, but Earle withdrew the case after the judge threw out crucial portions at the beginning of the trial.

One Republican House member, speaking anonymously, said the GOP fears Earle will seek an indictment to force DeLay from power -- perhaps in retaliation for last year's redistricting fight. DeLay was the guiding force behind the new districts, which target at least a half-dozen Democratic incumbents for defeat in this year's elections.

Earle refused to comment on the criticism Thursday, but in the past he has defended his investigations as nonpartisan, noting that he has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans since assuming office in 1976.

In the Texas Legislature, there is no rule that Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, would have to step aside if indicted. However, there are differing reports over the extent of "what if" scenarios for Craddick being discussed in Austin.

"No member, no lobbyist, no person has whispered anything about speculation on who would take over," said Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, a Craddick loyalist who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for speaker if Craddick, who has been subpoenaed to produce records on his run for speaker, could not complete his term.

On the other side, Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who leads the House Democratic Caucus, said he often gets phone calls from Republicans about Craddick's future.

"I get calls unsolicited on a biweekly basis from Republicans who want to talk about those kind of things," Dunnam said. "I tell them it's a bridge that will be crossed if it's ever crossed."