The ethical cloud hanging over Republican Congressman Tom DeLay finally burst this week, drenching him with an indictment for conspiracy in an alleged campaign money-laundering scheme in his home state. Now that he's resigned as House majority leader, maybe the GOP can put away its umbrellas.
A trial will determine whether Mr. DeLay, arguably the most powerful politician on Capitol Hill, is guilty. But it should come as a relief to the nation and his colleagues that the Republican leadership in Congress is no longer darkened by the ethical issues hovering over the congressman, who is retaining his seat.
Nicknamed "the hammer" for his ability to enforce party discipline and ensure the GOP's decade-long hold on the House, DeLay's been admonished four times by the House ethics committee (three times in 2004 and once in 1997), as well as privately rebuked (1999). His resignation was prompted by a GOP rule which the party had ditched, and after a deserved hew and cry, wisely revived.
The scrappy congressman energetically rejects the indictment as "baseless," a political vendetta. So do many of his defenders. Indeed, perhaps the link between DeLay and the alleged laundering of corporate campaign funds will disintegrate under scrutiny, as have two other high-profile cases pursued by Texas Democratic prosecutor Ronnie Earle.
But the fundraising case itself reflects a way of doing political business that's simply not acceptable.
The case begins with the creation of Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a political action committee formed by DeLay and his aides to help the GOP take control of the Texas legislature in 2002. When they succeeded, the GOP-dominated legislature redrew the state's congressional voting districts so that in 2004, Republicans in the US House picked up five more seats from Texas - significantly widening their control.
It was an ambitious strategy, but possibly tainted by money laundering. TRMPAC, according to the indictment, raised $155,000 in corporate donations and sent a check for $190,000 to an arm of the Republican National Committee and provided the committee a list of Texas legislative candidates who should receive funds, and the amounts they should recevie. The candidates did receive the funds. If those funds came from corporations, that would violate Texas election law, which forbids corporate donations to legislative candidates.
To be found guilty, prosecutors would have to show DeLay took part in the financial end-run, and that he knew it violated the law. His spokesman says DeLay believed "all activities were properly reviewed and approved by lawyers" for TRMPAC.
Until a jury or judge has spoken, one must assume DeLay's innocence. But the allegations point to that age-old relationship between power and money that can be so corrupting and which has flummoxed reformers. As the Texas money detour hints (and other cases show), when reformers restrict private donations, the money flows in other ways to candidates.
Will this case tip the balance toward greater public funding of campaigns? Slowly, states are moving in this direction. May they continue inching toward that goal.