Tom DeLay cleared in federal probe, but Texas charges loom

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay was not charged in a federal investigation into ties with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But he faces a Texas indictment for violating campaign-finance laws.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
In this April 2006 file photo, Former House majority leader Tom Delay (R) of Texas is seen in Washington. A lawyer for Delay says the Justice Department has ended a probe of the Texas Republican and will not file any criminal charges.

After a six-year investigation, the Justice Department ended its probe into former House majority leader Tom DeLay’s relations with convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, without bringing criminal charges.

The announcement did not come from the Justice Department, which typically does not comment on investigations that do not result in charges, but from Mr. DeLay’s legal team, as reported by Politico.

"Six years is a long time, and I'm sure he wishes it had happened years ago," Richard Cullen, attorney for the former Texas Republican lawmaker, told Politico Monday.

The broad investigation of Mr. Abramoff and his connections stirred up a storm of allegations and led to convictions or charges for some 20 House staff, former lobbyists, and Bush administration officials.

One member of Congress, Rep. Robert Ney (R) of Ohio, former chair of the House Administration Committee, was convicted for doing official favors for Mr. Abramoff in exchange for campaign contributions, trips, gifts, sports tickets, and meals.

House Democrats used such allegations as Exhibit A in their successful bid to take back the House in 2006. Other members of Congress, including former Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana, Rep. J. D. Hayworth (R) of Arizona, and Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California lost their 2006 reelection bids in the midst of allegations of involvement in such pay-to-play schemes, but, like DeLay, were not subsequently charged with a crime.

Such cases helped build support for a stronger lobbyist gift ban, curbs on corporate-funded travel, and new disclosure requirements for congressional earmarks or pork projects.

Public interest groups praised the new legislation but on Monday expressed concern that the investigation took so long and produced so few charges against members of Congress.

“We have a rather timid Justice Department that always seems to let members of Congress go,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “[The Delay outcome] will embolden members to think that anything is permissible.”

“Lobbyists are only as important as members let them be,” she adds. “It’s hard to imagine that in the end nothing that Abramoff did would have been effective without members of Congress, so how is it that they are the people to walk away?”

A Texas indictment that is separate from the Abramoff investigation and forced DeLay to resigned his position as majority leader in 2005 is still pending.

Before the indictment, House Republicans had passed a rule for their caucus that required members to resign leadership positions after a criminal indictment. Anticipating the Texas indictment, House Republicans voted to change the rule to protect leaders from politically motivated prosecutions. But under public pressure to not change the rule just to protect DeLay, the GOP caucus restored the rule, which applied only to Republican leaders, in 2005.

In September 2005, a Texas grand jury indicted DeLay on charges of violating campaign finance laws that ban corporate contributions to state political campaigns, as well as conspiracy.

Delay denied the charges and dubbed prosecutor Ronnie Earle a “partisan zealot,” out to punish DeLay for helping elect the GOP majority to the Texas state legislature in 2002. It was the redistricting done by the GOP-controlled state legislature that redrew the political map of Texas that helped House Republicans keep their majority in 2004. The case is expected to come to trial in Texas on Aug. 24.

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