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Legal Costs Will Remain Challenge for DeLay

With no personal wealth to fall back on, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) faces mounting legal and financial troubles even as he flees a thicket of ethical scandals inside a chamber he dominated for more than a decade.

DeLay is still facing an Austin, Texas, trial on campaign finance charges later this year, and the workings of his old leadership office continue to be under the microscope of federal investigators probing the previously hidden lobbying transactions of Jack Abramoff.

DeLay appears to have even acknowledged that another former staffer will face an indictment or cut a plea agreement with the Justice Department. In an interview with Time magazine Monday, DeLay said three former aides had “violated the trust of my office.”

“Unfortunately, there’s three ... that I don’t yet, I’ll wait until they’re found guilty,” he told Time.

That appears to be a reference to Ed Buckham, a former DeLay chief of staff who was implicated in Friday’s plea agreement by former DeLay deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy. So far, Rudy and former press secretary Michael Scanlon are the only ex-DeLay staffers to have pleaded guilty as part of Abramoff’s more than seven-year conspiracy to win official favors on Capitol Hill and in the Bush administration.

Any official legal move against Buckham would draw the case that much closer to

DeLay, because Buckham has been considered his most trusted adviser, personally and politically, even after leaving DeLay’s office in December 1997.

Buckham and Rudy previously had been using the services of the same lawyer, Laura Ariane Miller, but Miller has declined repeated requests from news organizations to say if she’s still representing Buckham at a time when Rudy has singled him out in his own plea agreement. Buckham previously has denied any wrongdoing.

Once DeLay leaves office later this spring, it’s unclear how he’ll be able to meet his ever-rising legal bills. He has been using a legal defense fund to defray most of the costs, a fund that continues to raise money in increments of up to $5,000 per contributor, per year, under House rules.

Brent Perry, the fund’s trustee, said it brought in more than $250,000 in the first quarter this year, money that was instantly turned around and paid to lawyers, leaving the fund nearly exhausted.

Perry rejected reports that the defense fund had more than $500,000 in its coffers at the end of 2005, saying, “Anytime I’ve had six figures in the trust, it’s only been a matter of days before the money was spent.”

If his backers are still willing to support him financially as an ex-Congressional leader, DeLay may be able to finance his debt through big-money donors with a private defense fund once he retires. Funds for private sector individuals, such as the one that recently raised more than $2 million for indicted former White House aide Scooter Libby, can accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations. Those donations are not tax deductible for contributors and may run into gift-tax issues as well.

But as he heads for the exit, DeLay is left without any obvious personal wealth to use to pay legal bills.

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