The Hammer Gets Hit

Tom DeLay, R-TX, the second-ranking Republican in the US House of Representatives, speaks to reporters 28 September 2005 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Delay said he would step aside temporarily from his leadership post after being indicted by a Travis County, Texas grand jury on a single felony conspiracy charge related to fund-raising activities by a political action committee he created. AFP PHOTO/POOL (Photo credit should read POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
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This column was written by Ari Berman.
The Republican Party's once-copious political capital is quickly eroding. As we go to press, House majority leader Tom DeLay has just been indicted by a Texas grand jury on one count of criminal conspiracy in a fast-moving money-laundering case. "I have notified the speaker that I will temporarily step aside from my position as majority leader," DeLay said in a statement following the stunning final day of the grand jury's term. The Republican Party's go-to guy, famously nicknamed "The Hammer," finally got whacked.

DeLay's indictment comes on the heels of charges that top political aide Jim Ellis and veteran fundraiser John Colyandro illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate contributions to candidates for the Texas legislature in 2002 through the national Republican Party. "The indictment charges DeLay with conspiring with Ellis and Colyandro to violate the Texas Election Code by contributing corporate money to certain candidates for the Texas Legislature," said the statement from DA Ronnie Earle. "It describes a scheme whereby corporate, or 'soft,' money was sent to the Republican National Committee where it was exchanged for 'hard' money, or money raised from individuals, and sent to those candidates." The probe initially focused on violations of Texas election law but was recently broadened to include conspiracy charges. DeLay's modus operandi — the ruthless accumulation of money and favors to benefit corporate interests and far-right Republicans — may ultimately secure his demise. In essence, he got caught for doing business as usual.

The indictment sent a shock wave through the GOP establishment, which is already reeling from a swath of criminal and ethics investigations. Three individuals, eight corporations and two political action committees connected to DeLay have been indicted as a result of the probe. In addition, the government's top procurement official, David Safavian, was arrested in September for obstructing a criminal investigation into über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a close DeLay ally. Abramoff himself is under criminal investigation for defrauding Indian tribes and was indicted for wire fraud in Florida in a separate case. Top White House aides, including Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, have been targeted by a special prosecutor investigating the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Representative Duke Cunningham announced he would not run for re-election after overselling his house for $700,000 to a military industry lobbyist; he too has been indicted. FDA chief Lester Crawford resigned unexpectedly after just two months on the job, possibly because of failure to report his wife's sizable pharmaceutical-industry holdings. And DeLay's Senate counterpart, Bill Frist, is battling possible insider-trading charges for dumping millions in HCA stock, a company founded by his father and run by his brother, weeks before it plunged in value. The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into Frist and HCA in September.

"The fact that Tom DeLay is under criminal indictment and Senate majority leader Bill Frist is under criminal investigation is a historic first," says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "This demonstrates the culture of corruption among the Congressional leadership that has become a cancer on our country."