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House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has begun quiet discussions with a handful of colleagues about the possibility that he will have to step down from his leadership post temporarily if he is indicted by a Texas grand jury investigating alleged campaign finance abuses.
The probe, which is being conducted by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, centers on whether Texans for a Republican Majority, a group and its affiliated political action committee started by DeLay, broke a Texas law prohibiting the use of corporate donations in political campaigns during the 2002 state legislative elections.
Republican Conference rules state that a member of the elected leadership who has been indicted on a felony carrying a penalty of at least two years in prison must temporarily step down from the post. He or she may return to the job if found not guilty or if the charges are reduced below a felony or dismissed.
With an increasing amount of press attention on the Texas investigation, a handful of Republican Members have approached DeLay in recent weeks to commiserate and offer their support. Some have also begun pondering how the Conference should proceed if DeLay is forced to temporarily vacate the Majority Leader post.
“This is seen as a ‘step-aside,’ not a ‘step-down,’” said a Republican lawmaker close to the leadership.
Several sources said that the subject has not yet been discussed in any leadership meetings, and most lawmakers interviewed for this story said they were not even aware of the Conference rule on indictments.
“A lot of Members recognize that this is a political witch hunt and they may not be taking it as seriously as they should,” said Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), a close DeLay ally.
Sweeney’s opinion of Earle’s investigation is shared by DeLay and many of his colleagues, who believe that the Majority Leader is being targeted by vengeful Democrats upset about his successful Texas redistricting effort.
“If Democrat Ronnie Earle’s investigation is an honest search for the truth, he will finish his work quickly and announce that DeLay has been legally exonerated,” said DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy.
DeLay supporters also point out that Earle indicted current Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in 1993 but then chose not to pursue the charges after a judge threw out most of the case.
Earle has strenuously denied allegations of partisan motivation and has emphasized that he has prosecuted far more Democrats than Republicans during his tenure as district attorney.
The idea that Earle is playing politics has led many Republican Members to discount the possibility that DeLay will be indicted.
“I really think the reaction to any suggestion that there may be some indictment or some wrongdoing [by DeLay] is just dismissed out of hand by the Members,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “It’s ridiculous. I think he will be leader for as long as he wants to be.”
Texas Rep. John Carter (R), a former Williamson County district judge, said an indictment “is not intended to be a declaration of guilt” and that it would be “pretty rough” if DeLay had to relinquish the Majority Leader post without having been convicted of anything.
Repeating a well-known legal adage, Carter said, “A DA can indict a ham sandwich given the opportunity.”