Even though a Texas judge dismissed part of a criminal indictment against U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay on Monday, he upheld the serious charges that will put the powerful Republican lawmaker on trial for money laundering and that decision has DeLay’s GOP cronies worried.
State Judge Pat Priest dismissed conspiracy charges against DeLay and two co-defendants, saying the actions were not a crime at the time DeLay was charged with violating them.
But Priest upheld the money laundering charges against DeLay, who was forced to step down as House of Representatives Majority Leader in September when he was first indicted for his role in the Texas campaign financing controversy.
Although Republicans express limited public support for DeLay, private resentment continues to grow within party ranks as momentum builds for a shakeup in the scandal-scarred party’s leadereship.
Republicans say privately they are troubled that DeLay’s political money-laundering trial in Texas could drag on for months, leaving the question of leadership in limbo.
“No question, there’s considerable discontent in the conference about DeLay’s return, but nobody’s talking on the record,” a House Republican political strategist told the Washington Post only on condition of anonymity for fear of crossing DeLay, should he return. “If he beats this rap in Austin, he will be back as majority leader, because nobody’s going to tell him no.”
After the judge’s decision, DeLay declined to speak with reporters as he entered a Houston hotel for a campaign fundraiser featuring Vice President Dick Cheney.
In response to the ruling, Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said “Republicans’ culture of corruption is alive and well.”
“The American people would be better served if Congressman DeLay and Vice President Cheney spent less time at fundraisers with their political cronies and more time working for every American on reducing home heating costs, making Medicare prescription drugs more affordable, and a fiscally sound budget,” she said.
Delay’s spokesman, however, spun the decision as a victory.
“The court’s decision to dismiss a portion of Ronnie Earle’s manufactured and flawed case against Mr. DeLay underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were,” Kevin Madden said. Earle is the prosecutor who brought the case in the state capital of Austin.
In a written statement, Earle’s office said prosecutors were studying the ruling and had made no decision about whether to appeal. Prosecutors have 15 days to challenge the decision.
The charges are part of a deepening political scandal around DeLay and other Republicans. The former majority leader has been accused of several ethical violations in recent years and his former top aide and press secretary, Michael Scanlon, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials in a separate case in Washington.
A number of other senior Republicans are also being investigated. The U.S. Justice Department in Washington is probing the dealings of Jack Abramoff, a once-powerful lobbyist who also had links to DeLay and worked with Scanlon.
Last week California Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham resigned from the House after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for help in securing Defense Department contracts.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist is being investigated for possible financial wrongdoing.
Democrats have made DeLay, 58, a top target in next year’s congressional elections, portraying him as a face of what they describe as a “culture of corruption” in the Republican-led Congress.
In the Austin case involving his Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC) DeLay has blamed what he calls a Democratic plot to oust him from power because he succeeded in advancing a conservative political agenda.
DeLay and colleagues Jim Ellis and John Colyandro are accused of laundering $190,000 in corporate donations to TRMPAC through the Republican National Committee for distributing to Republican candidates to the Texas Legislature in the 2002 state campaign.
Texas law forbids the use of corporate money in political campaigns.
TRMPAC helped the party take control of the state legislature in 2002 for the first time since the late 1800s. Under DeLay’s guidance, the legislature redrew congressional districts to increase the number of Republicans elected to Congress from Texas.
The DeLay team had been hoping for a full dismissal, which would have let him reclaim his leadership post and ended the matter long before the November 2006 congressional elections.
DeLay previously had asked for a trial as soon as possible.
Priest said the state has until December 20 to appeal the dismissal and that he did not intend to set a date — or rule on a request to move the trial out of heavily Democratic Austin — until after prosecutors acted.
Earle’s office said it had not decided whether to appeal and refused to comment on Priest’s decision. DeLay also has another request pending for dismissal of the remaining counts based on a charge of prosecutorial misconduct.