A Texas grand jury on Wednesday indicted Rep. Tom DeLay and two political associates on charges of conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme, forcing the House majority leader to temporarily relinquish his post. A defiant DeLay insisted he was innocent and called the prosecutor a "partisan fanatic."
"I have done nothing wrong. ... I am innocent," DeLay told a Capitol Hill news conference during which he criticized the Texas prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, repeatedly. DeLay said the charges amounted to "one of the weakest and most baseless indictments in American history."
In Austin, Earle told reporters, "Our job is to prosecute abuses of power and to bring those abuses to the public." He has noted previously that he has prosecuted many Democrats in the past.
DeLay's attorneys said they're working out the details of when the 11-term congressman would return to Texas in hopes of saving him from further embarrassment. He's to be photographed and fingerprinted.
Republicans at the Capitol selected Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the current Republican whip — No. 3 in the leadership ranks — to fill the vacancy temporarily.
Reps. David Dreier of California, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the chief deputy whip, will assist Blunt with some of the majority leader duties.
CBS News correspondent Jim Stewart reports that the charges against DeLay come at a particularly bad time for Republicans: The president is slipping in the polls, his initiatives are dying on Capitol Hill, and the man the White House had counted on to turn that fight around now stands indicted.
Seventy House seats could be up for grabs in the mid-term elections, and Republicans are very worried now because they know they cannot depend on this president and his coattails any longer, reports CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger.
Republicans expressed their backing for DeLay, the first House leader to be indicted in office in at least a century.
"He will fight this and we give him our utmost support," said Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois following a private GOP meeting.
DeLay said he was certain the indictment would be dismissed and shrugged off the charges as a "political witch hunt" designed to drive a wedge in the Republican ranks.
"If the Democrats think we're going to go crawl in a hole and not accomplish our agenda, I wish they could have been a fly on the wall" of the closed-door meeting, DeLay said after the session.
The indictment accused DeLay, 58, of a conspiracy to violate Texas election law, which prohibits the use of corporate donations to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. Prosecutors say the alleged scheme worked in a roundabout way, with the donations going to a DeLay-founded political committee, then to the Republican National Committee and eventually to GOP candidates in Texas.
The indictment stems from a plan DeLay helped set in motion in 2001 to help Republicans win control of the Texas House in the 2002 elections for the first time since Reconstruction.
Indicted with DeLay were two of his associates, John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political committee.
The grand jury's foreman, William Gibson, told The Associated Press that Earle didn't pressure members one way or the other. "Ronnie Earle didn't indict him. The grand jury indicted him," Gibson told The Associated Press in an interview at his home.
Gibson, 76, a retired sheriff's deputy in Austin, said of DeLay: "He's probably doing a good job. I don't have anything against him. Just something happened."
The Texas Republican temporarily stepped down from the No. 2 leadership post that he had held since 2002, as required by House rules.
Blunt said he was confident DeLay would be cleared of the allegations and return to his leadership job.
Criminal conspiracy is a state felony punishable by six months to two years in a state jail and a fine of up to $10,000.
Stewart reports that the White House quickly came to DeLay's defense, calling him a "good ally" – but carefully said little else.
"I think the president's view is that we need to let the legal process work," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
The indictment puts the Republicans — who control the White House, Senate and House — on the defensive. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., also is fending off questions of ethical improprieties. And less than a week ago, a former White House official was arrested in the investigation of Jack Abramoff, a high-powered lobbyist and fundraiser.
The indictment accused DeLay of a conspiracy to "knowingly make a political contribution" in violation of Texas law outlawing corporate contributions. It alleged that DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee accepted $155,000 from companies, including Sears Roebuck, and placed the money in an account.
The PAC then wrote a $190,000 check to an arm of the Republican National Committee and provided the committee a document with the names of Texas State House candidates and the amounts they were supposed to received in donations, the indictment said.
The indictment included a copy of the check.
The charge against the second-ranking, and most assertive Republican leader came on the final day of the grand jury's term. It followed earlier indictments of a state political action committee founded by DeLay and three of his political associates.
"The problem for DeLay and the Republican leadership, apart from the obvious one, is that these sorts of investigations, these sorts of criminal cases, tend to take on lives of their own," said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.
"They tend to have unintended consequences once people start testifying under oath and start getting pressure to make deals with prosecutors. The story, in other words, doesn't end with this indictment."
DeLay's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said he preferred a trial as soon as possible, at least by the end of the year. Asked when DeLay would turn himself in, DeGuerin said, "I'm going to keep from having Tom DeLay taken down in handcuffs, photographed and fingerprinted. That's uncalled for."
The grand jury action is expected to have immediate consequences in the House, where DeLay is largely responsible for winning passage of the Republican legislative program.
DeLay has served in Congress for 21 years, the last three as House Republican leader, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss. He is famous for enforcing party discipline, leading to his nickname "the Hammer".
Democrats have kept up a crescendo of criticism of DeLay's ethics, citing three times last year that the House ethics committee admonished DeLay for his conduct.
"The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom Delay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Democratic chairman Howard Dean cited the problems of DeLay, Frist and Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff at the center of questions about the leak of a CIA operative's name.
"The Republican leadership in Washington is now spending more time answering questions about ethical misconduct than doing the people's business," Dean said.
At the White House, McClellan bristled at a question about Democratic claims that Republicans have grown arrogant in their use of power after years of controlling the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.
McClellan said the Republican Party has made policy that has improved the lives of Americans, and the White House stands by that record.
DeLay retains his seat representing Texas' 22nd congressional district, suburbs southwest of Houston.
As a sign of loyalty to DeLay after the grand jury returned indictments against three of his associates, House Republicans last November repealed a rule requiring any of their leaders to step aside if indicted. The rule was reinstituted in January after lawmakers returned to Washington from the holidays fearing the repeal might create a backlash from voters.