DeLay Chooses Legal Team

Posted July 6, 2004 at 7:03pm

Facing legal challenges in Washington and Austin, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has retained lawyers to defend him in both a Congressional ethics probe and an ongoing investigation into Texas’ 2002 legislative races.

DeLay has rehired former Rep. Ed Bethune (R-Ark.), currently a lawyer with the firm Bracewell & Patterson, to represent him against an ethics complaint filed by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas), DeLay aides said.

Bethune was DeLay’s lawyer in 2000 after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a civil-racketeering lawsuit against the Texas Republican, and he also defended former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) during the latter part of his ethics battles with House Democrats.

Meanwhile, in Austin, sources close to the Texas Republican said DeLay has hired two criminal-defense attorneys, Bill White and Steve Brittain, to represent him in an investigation by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is probing the activities of a DeLay-founded PAC during the Texas 2002 legislative races.

White and Brittain — who consulted with DeLay, and Earle, informally for several weeks — were officially retained in the week prior to the July 4 Congressional recess to monitor developments in Earle’s investigation and determine their potential impact on DeLay.

Bethune, a former FBI agent and prosecutor, served in the House from 1978 to 1984. At Bracewell & Patterson, Bethune’s lobbying clients have included Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., Raytheon Corp. and the Southern Co., as well as the FBI Agents Association.

While the DCCC lawsuit against DeLay was eventually dropped, DeLay faced a legal bill in excess of $500,000 from the case. DeLay, then Majority Whip, set up a legal defense fund to cover the expenses from the Democratic lawsuit.

Sources said DeLay may seek a waiver from the ethics committee to use the same fund to help pay for costs arising from the current Texas investigation.

In his ethics complaint, Bell has alleged that DeLay illegally solicited donations from corporations; misused a Texas PAC to “launder illegal corporate contributions” and steered those funds to Texas state legislators; and abused his office to intervene in a Texas redistricting battle.

DeLay has adamantly denied the charges, and he has until the end of this month to formally respond to the House ethics committee on Bell’s charges. Bethune did not return several calls seeking comment for this article.

The Texas case involves the question of whether a DeLay-founded PAC, Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, illegally funneled corporate funds into Texas legislative races in 2002. Texas Republicans gained full control of the state Legislature following the 2002 elections for the first time since Reconstruction. The GOP majority proceeded to push through a Congressional redistricting plan that threatens to unseat as many as five House Democrats this fall.

Earle is investigating allegations that TRMPAC, founded by DeLay in September 2001, broke Texas law by funneling corporate funds into the Texas races. The use of such funds in state races is illegal under state law.

TRMPAC, which is run by a top DeLay fundraiser, Jim Ellis, did not report to Texas electoral authorities more than $750,000 in contributions it received during the 2001-02 cycle. Of that total, at least $602,000 came from corporations.

TRMPAC, though, did declare the donations to the IRS. TRMPAC claims it used the funds for “administrative” expenses related to the 2002 elections, which would be legal. Democrats and Texas-based public watchdog groups counter that TRMPAC improperly used the money to fund election activities that helped Republicans win control of the state Legislature.

DeLay sat on TRMPAC’s advisory board during the previous cycle, although he has denied having any role in TRMPAC’s operations beyond raising money for the group.

DeLay has not been subpoenaed to testify in Earle’s investigation yet, but his aides believe it could happen. His daughter, Dani DeLay Ferro, who served as a consultant to TRMPAC, and Ellis have been, as well as several other TRMPAC officials. The Texas Association of Business, which watchdog groups allege colluded with TRMPAC in evading Texas’ election laws, also has been a target of Earle’s probe.

If DeLay were to be indicted on a felony charge, he may be forced to give up his Majority Leader post, at least temporarily, until the case is adjudicated.