Is the Hammer Nailed?

Yet another indictment of DeLay, this time for money laundering. Will it reverberate for other politicos?

Is the Hammer Nailed?
Illustration By Doug Potter

Just when everyone wondered if they'd seen the last of the grand jury indictments in a three-year-old political money probe, a brand-new grand jury convened Monday and, within hours of its swearing-in, issued a second indictment against U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay and two associates.

The rapid action raises new questions about whether House Speaker Tom Craddick and others tied to the investigation are truly in the clear, as Craddick's attorney and political observers suggested after last Wednesday's disbandment of a grand jury that had spent six months weighing evidence in the case.

Speaking to reporters last week, District Attorney Ronnie Earle stressed that his office is continuing to investigate allegations of illegal use of corporate money in the 2002 legislative races. Technically, prosecutors have until the end of October to wrap up their probe of multiple cast members in DeLay's political action committee – Texans for a Republican Majority, known as TRMPAC, and the Texas Association of Business. Both groups played key roles in the Republican legislative takeover three years ago, which catapulted Craddick to speaker. Although TAB itself has been charged with illegally raising corporate money, no individual has been indicted in connection with the TAB allegation.

Monday's indictment of DeLay and associates John Colyandro and Jim Ellis charges the trio with conspiracy to launder money – a first-degree felony that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. The three are accused of sending $190,000 in corporate money to the Republican National Committee, which then sent separate checks totaling $190,000 to GOP candidates in seven competitive legislative races, including those of Austin state Rep. Todd Baxter and former Reps. Jack Stick of Austin and Rick Green of Dripping Springs.

The beefed-up indictment went out shortly after DeLay's defense lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, filed a motion seeking dismissal of the original indictment, which charged his client with a lesser count of conspiracy to violate state campaign election laws, a two-year state jail felony. In a nose-thumbing response, DeLay on Monday accused Earle of "trying to pull the legal equivalent of a 'do-over' since he knows very well that the charges he brought against me last week are totally manufactured and illegitimate. This is an abomination of justice," DeLay said.

DeLay founded TRMPAC to raise money toward the goal of creating a Republican majority in the Lege, which in turn advanced his congressional redistricting map. One of the contributions TRMPAC raised was a $100,000 check from the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care Inc., since deemed an illegal contribution by prosecutors. Records show Craddick picked up the check on Oct. 24, 2002, and delivered it to TRMPAC. Craddick's attorney, Roy Minton, has said that his client has done nothing illegal.

The question of how, or if, the corporate-money scandal will play out in state politics is certain to generate mixed responses. Political consultant and Republican advisor Bill Miller predicts few reverberations – as long as DeLay remains the focus of the case. "My view is, unless it happens to you it's somebody else's problem," Miller said. Any DeLay-related side effects that Republicans suffer would be more likely to occur nationally than in Texas, he predicts. The reason is simple: "Republicans are as strong as horseradish across the state."

Still, the ongoing uncertainties surrounding Craddick don't exactly ensure his re-election as speaker, Miller acknowledged. Rumors of a Republican challenge are nothing new, however. "There is no lack of ambition in the Legislature," Miller said. "But there is a distinct lack of courage. It's always easier to talk about [challenging Craddick] then it is to actually do."

On the Democrats' side, political strategist Kelly Fero sees plenty of stumbling blocks ahead for Republicans. "There is no reason to believe that Mr. Craddick or any of the other alleged co-conspirators at the center of the scandal are in the clear," he said. "Everyone knows who they are. It seems pretty obvious that some members of the gang have rolled on other members of the gang, [who] may be well-advised to refrain from any premature victory dances in the end zone."

At least one Democratic hopeful running against Baxter has called on him to return the $35,000 he received from TRMPAC. "This campaign should be about our community's future, not my opponent's past," said Donna Howard. "I encourage him to do the right thing so that he can put this issue behind him." At press time, Baxter had not returned a phone call seeking a response.

State lawmakers for the most part have shown little interest in closing loopholes in the state's campaign finance laws, and this year rejected legislation that would have fixed what resulted in the recent indictments. At least one PAC doesn't have to worry about the taint of corporate money. But there may be some lessons learned in the long run.

"Hopefully the DeLay case will motivate regular folks to step up to the plate and make contributions to fund political campaigns," said Carolyn Boyle, a co-founder of the newly formed Texas Parent PAC, which seeks to elect state lawmakers who are committed to public education. "Politics is not a spectator sport. If we want our lawmakers to represent their constituents, then those constituents need to contribute campaign funding, either directly to candidates or to public-spirited PACs."

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