By R.G. RATCLIFFE, March 25, 2004
U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay apparently is preparing for the possibility that a Travis County grand jury may indict him on charges of violating state campaign finance laws.
DeLay, R-Sugar Land, told a group of Houston supporters earlier this month he may need to raise more money for a legal defense fund.
A Capitol Hill newspaper reported Thursday that he has discussed with other Republicans the possibility of temporarily stepping down from his leadership position if he is indicted.
DeLay and a committee he founded, Texans for a Republican Majority, are the subject of a grand jury investigation being led by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. The investigation focuses on whether TRM spent corporate money to influence the 2002 state House races in violation of Texas law.
DeLay and his aides have denied any wrongdoing and called the investigation a political witch hunt. However, DeLay apparently is preparing for an unfavorable outcome.
"It is quite clear that Earle is on a political mission," said DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella. "So we fully expect that to achieve his political agenda, he will soon empanel a new grand jury, and around September or October, he may try to improperly indict -- on very tenuous grounds -- as many Republicans as he possibly can."
DeLay and an aide in a March 8 private meeting at the Omni Houston Hotel talked to Houston supporters about the possible need to pay for a legal defense in connection with the grand jury investigation, according to two people who attended the meeting.
The meeting at the Omni was part of a regular event DeLay holds every three months for supporters called the "Congressional Quarterly Luncheon." The two people interviewed by the Chronicle spoke on condition of anonymity.
DeLay talked about the grand jury investigation only after being asked about it by one of the 40 to 50 people in attendance, sources told the Chronicle.
DeLay talked briefly about a legal defense and then had an unidentified aide discuss the possible need for raising money for a legal defense fund.
One of those interviewed quoted DeLay as saying, "I fully anticipate being indicted."
The other person did not remember hearing DeLay say anything like that, "but I gathered the money he might raise would be for him," he said.
The Chronicle attempted to contact others who are known to have been at the meeting, but none responded.
Grella said neither DeLay nor the aide talked about setting up a new fund or of having any expectation of needing one.
Grella said the aide, whom he declined to name, explained to the crowd that a legal defense can be expensive. He said DeLay found that out when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sued him for racketeering in 2000, a lawsuit that was later dropped.
"One staffer discussed the Democrats' previous frivolous lawsuit that was thrown out of court, but didn't discuss a new legal defense fund," Grella said.
The Tom Delay Legal Expense Trust was set up in July 2000, according to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. Through November 2001 it had paid out $320,222 -- about half the legal bill owed to the Houston law firm of Bracewell & Patterson to defend DeLay in the lawsuit.
Roll Call on Thursday reported that DeLay had spoken with Republican leaders about temporarily stepping down from his position as majority leader if indicted.
The newspaper quoted an unnamed Republican lawmaker as saying, "This is seen as a step-aside, not a step-down."
It also quoted U.S. Rep. John Sweeney, R-New York, a DeLay ally, as saying Republican members "recognize that this is a political witch hunt and they may not be taking it as seriously as they should."
Grella sidestepped questions about whether the majority leader is making plans for a possible indictment, calling such speculation premature.
"The majority leader has firsthand experience with high-profile Democratic attempts to criminalize the politics they don't like, and this is no different," Grella said. "Through improper and misleading media leaks and Democratic innuendo, it's become clear the Democratic district attorney is on a political vendetta."
Rules of the House Republican Conference require that a member of the leadership indicted for a felony carrying a penalty of at least two years in prison step down pending resolution of the case. If the charges are dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor, the member can reclaim his or her position in the leadership.
Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican and close DeLay ally, said he is not aware of any discussions for contingencies or successions should DeLay be forced to step down.
"From what I have heard and seen, this whole thing in Austin is just Democrats trying to punish Mr. DeLay for redistricting," Culberson said.
Chronicle reporter Julie Mason contributed to this story.