(5th Add: Includes additional comments from former House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay.)
(CNSNews.com) - House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has been indicted by a Texas grand jury in Travis County charging him and two associates with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme.
Because of GOP rules, DeLay must step down as majority leader, but he will remain a member of Congress.
"I have notified the speaker that I will temporarily step aside from my position as majority leader pursuant to the rules of the House Republican Conference and the actions of the Travis County district attorney today," DeLay said in a statement.
DeLay denied committing any crime and said District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, is pursuing the case for political reasons.
"These charges have no basis in the facts or the law. This is just another example of Ronnie Earle misusing his office for partisan vendettas," DeLay's spokesperson Kevin Madden said.
"The defendants entered into an agreement with each other or with TRMPAC (Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee) to make a political contribution in violation of the Texas election code," the indictment says. "The contribution was made directly to the Republican National Committee within 60 days of a general election."
Reports say the charges stem from the majority leader's role in using corporate money in the 2002 elections, which is prohibited by state law. The money was allegedly used to secure Republican majority control of the Texas Legislature in the 2002 election for the first time since Reconstruction, the Associated Press reports.
DeLay's associated John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas PAC formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, head of DeLay's national political committee, were indicted as well.
"The indictment describes a scheme whereby corporate money, which cannot be given to candidates in Texas, was sent to the Republican National Committee where it was exchanged for money raised from individuals and then sent to those Texas Legislative candidates," said Earle at a press conference Wednesday.
"Criminal conspiracy is a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in the state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Thus far in this investigation, that began following the November 2002 Texas state elections, there have been 41 indictments, carrying a total of 81 counts, returned," added Earle.
"The law says that the duty of the prosecuting attorney is not to convict, but to see that justice is done. We have over the years prosecuted a number of elected officials. At least count that total stood at 15 - 12 of whom were Democrats and three of whom were Republicans," said Earle.
"Our job is to prosecute abuses of power. And our job is to bring those abuses to the attention of the public through the use of juries, Earle added.
'Coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution'
"In an act of blatant political partisanship, a rogue district attorney in Travis County, Texas, named Ronnie Earle, charged me with one count of criminal conspiracy, a reckless charge wholly unsupported by the facts," said DeLay at a press conference Wednesday.
DeLay called the indictment "one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history."
"It's a sham, and Mr. Earle knows it. It's a charge that cannot hold up even under the most glancing scrutiny," said DeLay. "This act is the product of a coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution, the all too predictable result of a vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic.
"Mr. Earle is abusing the power of his office to exact personal revenge for the role I played in the Texas Republican Legislative campaign in 2002 and my advocacy for a new, fair and constitutional congressional map for our state in 2003," DeLay added.
"Mr. Earle, an unabashed partisan zealot with a well-documented history of launching baseless investigations and indictments against his political enemies, has been targeting a political action committee on whose advisory board I once served," the Texas congressman said.
"During his investigation, he has gone out of his way to give several media interviews in his office - the only days he actually comes to the office I'm told - in which he has singled me out for personal attacks in direct violation of his public responsibility to conduct an impartial inquiry," said DeLay.
"I have done nothing wrong. I have violated no law ? no regulation, no rule of the House. I have done nothing unlawful, unethical or I might add unprecedented, even in the political campaigns to Mr. Earle himself. My defense in this case will not be technical or legalistic," said DeLay.
Blunt to serve as acting majority leader
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) will step into DeLay's leadership post as acting majority leader while DeLay is fighting the charges against him.
Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) will assume extra duties in the whip office, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announced at a press conference following a meeting of Republican leadership.
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the Rules committee who was cited earlier as a possible replacement for DeLay, will work with the chairman to move legislation to the House floor and make recommendations to Blunt and Hastert.
"I think our members were decisive. We're ready to go to work and roll up our sleeves, and we will finish our agenda and get through this year with flying colors," Hastert said.
DeLay became a target "largely because of his effectiveness as a leader," Blunt said.
The GOP expects DeLay to return to his leadership post once the indictment "is out of the way," Blunt said. "That's what our rules call for. That's why my current situation will be to act as temporary leader and Tom would come back as leader," he added.
In the meantime, DeLay will play an important role in "getting our work done," Blunt said. DeLay will be "an effective and influential part of what we're doing as he works now to get beyond this terribly unfair thing that's happened."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush considers DeLay a "good ally and a friend who we have worked with very closely to get things done for the American people."
Bush's "view is that we need to let the legal process work," McClellan said.
When asked whether Bush still has confidence in DeLay, McClellan said, "Leader DeLay is going to work to address this issue. He has put out a statement by his office. I think our views are very clear in terms of our relationship with the congressman and the president continues to hold those views."
Republicans 'plagued by a culture of corruption'
"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 House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"Today, the state of Texas is doing what the Republican- controlled federal government has failed repeatedly to do, which is hold Republicans in Washington accountable for their culture of corruption. This alleged illegal activity reaches to the highest levels of the Republican Party," said Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean in a statement.
Dean characterized the Republican Party as unethical, saying the GOP is spending more time "answering questions" than doing political business.
"With House Republican Leader Tom DeLay under criminal indictment, Senate Republican Leader Frist facing SEC and Department of Justice investigations, and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove under investigation, the Republican leadership in Washington is now spending more time answering questions about ethical misconduct than doing the people's business," said Dean.
"Tom DeLay is neither the beginning nor the end of the Washington Republicans' ethical problems. America can do better than leaders who use their power to promote their own personal interests instead of the interests of the American people who elected them. We simply must change the way business is done in Washington," Dean concluded.
Liberal group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) praised DeLay's indictment and urged "the immediate investigation into the widespread and ever-growing corruption on Capitol Hill."
The group called for DeLay and other Republicans to be investigated for "blatant violations" of House ethics rules and federal law.
"Despite Rep. DeLay's admonishment by the House ethics committee, CREW's calls to investigate Mr. DeLay's other violations, as well as those of some of his colleagues which have been ignored and scoffed at on both sides of the aisle," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, in a statement.
"Corruption continues to be ignored on Capitol Hill. Thankfully, however, the citizens of the Texas grand jury do care about ethics," said Sloan.
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