The Tom DeLay indictment


Tom DeLay has been indicted in Travis County, Texas, for conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws. Two DeLay political associates had previously been indicted. Under House Republican Party rules, DeLay immediately lost his position as majority leader, and the Associated Press has reported that Speaker Dennis Hastert has chosen Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier to replace him.

This is very bad news for House Republicans. DeLay has been astonishingly effective in rounding up majorities for legislation supported by the Republican leadership and the Bush administration. He is well liked by many members. I don't know how this case will turn out and cannot assess the validity of the charges. The Associated Press reports that "DeLay has denied committing any crime and accused the Democratic district attorney leading the investigation, Ronnie Earle, of pursuing the case for political motives." I don't think that possibility can be dismissed. Earle is a liberal Democrat, and in 1993 he brought criminal charges against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, then comptroller and now U.S. senator; most of the charges were dismissed by the judge before trial, and the remaining charges were withdrawn. The case was summarized as follows by the Austin Review: "Earle's politically motivated indictment of Senator Hutchinson on charges that she used state funds to run her senatorial campaign made even his own supporters cringe. The charges were dismissed when Earle refused to present evidence at trial." The quotation is from the Captain's Quarters blog; the original is apparently no longer available online.

Democrats will surely charge that DeLay's indictment, that of White House procurement official David Safavian, and that of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff show that George W. Bush's Republican Party is laced with corruption. I think that's obviously a stretch–both parties at various times have been much more scandal smirched than today's Republicans–and I think that the DeLay indictment in time may prove to be no more valid than that of Senator Hutchison, who has been re-elected by wide margins twice since the case against her was dismissed. But in the meantime, this is bad news for the Republican Party and gives every Democratic House challenger a talking point.

The House Republican rule that requires indicted leaders to step down was inspired by the indictment of then Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski when Democrats still had a majority in the House. After last November's election, the Republican leadership, anticipating a possible DeLay indictment, tried to repeal the rule but after considerable protest reinstated it. I think that was a wise decision. It's not seemly to keep a top party leader in office after he has been indicted–however flimsy the indictment may ultimately turn out to be.

Is Ronnie Earle abusing his prosecutorial discretion, as he pretty clearly did in the Hutchison case? Our system of criminal justice gives a lot of discretion to prosecutors, who are chosen in partisan elections in most states or by partisan process as in the selection of United States attorneys. One of the good things about America is that the large majority of prosecutors, from both political parties, do not abuse this discretion in the pursuit of political goals. I've known a lot of prosecutors of both parties, all of whom took their responsibilities and their duty to be fair very seriously. But I've never met Ronnie Earle.