DeLay Seeks Closure on Texas Case

Posted September 12, 2005 at 6:39pm

The recently disclosed meeting between House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and a prosecutor investigating allegations of state campaign finance violations is a strong signal that DeLay is trying to put a longstanding Texas investigation behind him as he prepares for a potential probe by the House ethics committee. DeLay and his lawyers met with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and his aides for about 90 minutes on Aug. 17 in the Public Integrity unit of the Travis County DA’s office. Sources close to both men described the meeting as cordial and said DeLay was treated more like a witness than a potential target of the probe.

Accompanying DeLay to the meeting were his Austin criminal-defense lawyers, Bill White and Steve Brittan, as well Toby Vick of McGuireWoods (one of DeLay’s Washington, D.C., law firms) and Elliot Berke, general counsel in the Majority Leader’s office. Earle was joined by Greg Cox, director of the Public Integrity unit, and another official.

Earle has been leading a two-and-half-year investigation into the use of corporate funds in the 2002 Texas legislative races. Earle obtained indictments against three DeLay political allies last September for allegedly violating Texas’ ban on the use of corporate campaign donations in state legislative races. Since then, there has been widespread speculation that DeLay also could find himself going in front of a grand jury at some point.

On Thursday, Earle announced indictments of Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee and the Texas Association of Business for their activities in 2002 state legislative races. DeLay’s office then disclosed that the Majority Leader had held a voluntary meeting with Earle and other Travis County prosecutors to discuss DeLay’s involvement with TRMPAC.

Earle told the Dallas Morning News on Friday that, despite earlier comments he had made, his aim in the TRMPAC probe was not to indict DeLay. “I have never said Mr. DeLay is a target of the investigation,” Earle told the newspaper.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Earle had asked for a voluntary meeting with DeLay in mid-July, and DeLay’s legal team agreed to that request. For reasons that are unclear, however, no further talks were held for several weeks.

Later that month, Earle convinced a Texas judge to issue a subpoena to compel DeLay to testify. Earle then contacted DeLay’s lawyers again before actually serving the Texas Republican. At that point, DeLay agreed to a voluntary sit-down, although it still took several weeks for the two men to actually get together. The existence of the DeLay subpoena, which was never formally served on the lawmaker, was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

DeLay was not under oath when he met with Earle, and there were no other preconditions put in place, such as transactional or prosecutorial immunity, sources close to the Majority Leader said.

Most of the gathering focused on DeLay’s involvement with TRMPAC. DeLay helped create the organization in 2001 with a $50,000 donation from his federal leadership PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority PAC.

TRMPAC’s goal was to help Texas Republicans win control of the state Legislature, which would then allow the adoption of a Congressional redistricting map favorable to the GOP. DeLay and other Lone Star State Republicans were angered by the fact that Texas’ Congressional delegation was still majority Democratic, despite the fact that Texas voters had shifted decisively to the GOP.

Thanks in part to extensive fundraising by TRMPAC, TAB and other pro-Republican groups, GOP candidates were able to win control in the 2002 elections of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction. A DeLay ally, Tom Craddick, was elected Speaker, and despite repeated attempts by Texas Democrats to block it, a Congressional redistricting map much more favorable to Republicans was adopted. Six seats changed from Democratic to Republican control thanks to the DeLay-led redistricting drive, cementing his status as a GOP powerbroker and infuriating Democrats in Austin and Washington.

After an official at TAB bragged in an association newsletter about the group’s role in the 2002 state elections, Earle began his investigation. The use of corporate funds is illegal in Texas legislative races.

A Texas judge ruled in May that TRMPAC should have reported more than $532,000 in corporate contributions to state officials during the 2001-02 cycle, and the judge awarded in excess of $196,000 in damages to five state Democratic candidates who have sued the group. TRMPAC, which declared those donations to federal authorities but did not notify state officials, is appealing that ruling.

A Texas grand jury indicted TRMPAC last Thursday on two counts of violating Texas’ ban on the use of corporate funds. The charges center on whether TRMPAC illegally solicited and accepted $120,000 from the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, an industry-funded group, and AT&T Corp. Earle’s office charged that these donations represented an infringement of state law.

DeLay has denied playing any significant role in the day-to-day operations of TRMPAC, although he did serve on an advisory committee for the organization.

James Bopp, a GOP campaign expert who has testified on behalf of TRMPAC in a civil case brought by Texas Democrats, said the DeLay-Earle meeting was highly unusual.

“Yeah, I think it’s extraordinary,” Bopp said. “I think it’s an indication that [DeLay] and his lawyers believe he is completely blameless for anything that happened [with TRMPAC], if in fact any crime was committed.”

But another campaign-finance expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said DeLay faced a political consequence if he did not cooperate with Earle, especially once DeLay’s camp knew Earle had obtained a subpoena that would compel the Texas Republican to testify.

“There’s always a certain tension between litigators and politicians in any of these cases,” said this expert. If DeLay were to refuse to testify unless he were subpoenaed, it could look like he was attempting to hide something — a difficult position for DeLay to be in politically with all of the ethics controversies that have surrounded him.

But if DeLay were to meet with Earle, especially without any assurances that what he said wouldn’t be held against him, then he could have exposed himself to legal jeopardy if he admits to illegal behavior. “That’s a big risk to take,” said one GOP lawyer familiar with the case. “I’m surprised they did it.”

Craddick also met privately with Earle last month, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Craddick’s lawyer told the newspaper that it was “a pleasant conversation.”

Up until now, little love was lost between the Earle and DeLay camps. DeLay has claimed that Earle was seeking to redress Democratic losses at the polls by using a politically motivated investigation, while Earle has suggested that Republicans, including DeLay, repeatedly violated Texas campaign laws through the used of millions of dollars in corporate contributions.

But Earle’s probe, or at least the investigatory phase of it, may finally be winding down.

The latest grand jury, the fourth in this case, is set to expire at the end of September, and sources close to the investigation say it will likely be the last one empaneled.

And while a number of legal issues remain for Texas courts to straighten out, including outstanding criminal charges against several DeLay allies, the fact that Earle privately told DeLay and his attorneys that he is not a target of investigators may now enable DeLay to focus his attention on the House ethics committee.

“It’s not over yet, but there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for DeLay,” said a GOP source official close to the Majority Leader. “He may just slip the noose on this one.”