DeLay Appears To Be Off The Hook

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By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com chief political writer


House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, appears to have dodged a bullet.

The powerful GOP chieftain is unlikely to be indicted by a state grand jury probing alleged campaign finance violations in Texas, according to an official involved in the investigation.

"No, no, I really don't think DeLay will be indicted," the official told CBSNews.com. "And to be quite honest, [DeLay's] lawyers know that."

Anticipating a possible indictment by a state grand jury in Travis County (Austin) Texas, House Republicans last week took steps to protect DeLay's position by changing a party rule that would have forced him to step aside as majority leader if indicted on a felony charge. The change will leave it up to a committee of GOP House members to decide whether an indicted leader should step down.

DeLay has denied playing any role in the move to protect him. DeLay's office did not return telephone messages requesting comment on this story.

Three close political associates of DeLay have been charged with illegally accepting and laundering corporate money for political purposes.

In 2002, DeLay led a successful effort to win local races that strengthened the GOP's hold on the Texas legislature. The additional clout was used to redraw Texas congressional districts in a way that benefited GOP House candidates. As a result, the Republicans gained five Texas House seats in the election earlier this month.

Texas law forbids labor unions and corporations to fund such legislative campaigns. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle alleges that the three Delay associates and eight corporations violated the law by illegally funneling money into these races.

A review of documents made public through civil litigation indicate DeLay was kept aware of the fundraising activities that were taking place. (DeLay's daughter was a paid consultant to two fund-raising committees that pumped money into the races.)

Nevertheless, the official familiar with investigation said investigators would have to establish that DeLay "acted to promote" the illegal activity, and that such evidence had not been forthcoming.

"To indict and prosecute someone, we have to be able to show not just that they were aware of something," the official explained. "We have to show that they engaged in enough conduct to make them party to the offense."

There were also jurisdictional hurdles, the official said.

"For a penal code offense [such as money laundering] we would have to find something done in Travis County, Texas, to be able to indict," the officials said. "And [DeLay] wasn't here very often."

DeLay and other Republicans have asserted that the Travis County probe was politically motivated. The Travis County district attorney, Ronnie Earle, is a Democrat.

Speaking to reporters last week, DeLay said the Democrats were engaging in the "politics of personal destruction."

"At this particular time, our rules could be used against us and so they fixed the rules so that the Democrats cannot use our own rules against us," DeLay said of the rule change that helped him.

Earle dismissed the GOP allegations of partisanship. The veteran prosecutor said he had brought charges against far more Democrats (12) than Republicans (3) during his years in office.

"I've heard this for 27 years," Earle said in a telephone interview with CBSNews.com. "What else are they going to say?"