Is the noose tightening on Tom DeLay?

As new ethics problems arise in Washington, a criminal case in Texas gets a little hotter.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 10, 2005 2:54PM (EST)

That criminal case down in Texas, the one that doesn't have anything to do with Tom DeLay, is sure starting to look like it has a whole lot to do with Tom DeLay. A Texas grand jury indicted one of DeLay's closest political operatives and a major fund-raiser for DeLay's national political action committee in September, and last week a Texas prosecutor refused to rule out the possibility that DeLay himself could be indicted.

This week, documents produced in a related civil case in Texas suggested that DeLay was much more involved than he had previously acknowledged in the operations of Texans for a Republican Majority, the political action committee at the center of the criminal case pending against DeLay's associates. As the New York Times explains, prosecutors allege that DeLay's associates engaged in a plot to channel corporate contributions to TRMPAC and then to Republican candidates -- a violation of Texas law. TRMPAC insists that, while it took corporate contributions, it used the money only for administration expenses, which it maintains is legal under Texas law.

The documents produced this week suggest that DeLay personally delivered at least one corporate check to TRMPAC, and both the documents and DeLay's own comments show that he was aware of and involved in decisions about how to segregate corporate funds from other contributions TRMPAC received.

"Yes, I raised money for them," DeLay said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle this week. The Sugar Land congressman brushed off any suggestion that he might have broken the law-- but mostly he seemed to be saying that it would be hard to prove it. "Everything that TRMPAC did, they did under the advice of lawyers," DeLay told the Chronicle. "When you have lawyers advising you every step of the way in writing, it's very hard to make a case stick."

Meanwhile, DeLay is facing new ethics problems back in Washington. The Washington Post reports this morning that DeLay may have violated House rules in 2001 when he and other members of Congress accepted an expense-paid trip to South Korea from a registered foreign agent. The Post says DeLay's host was the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, an entity created with help from a lobbying firm headed by DeLay's former chief of staff. The group registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act on Aug. 22, 2001, and DeLay and his wife left on their South Korea junket just a few days later. DeLay's staff told the Post that DeLay did not know of the group's foreign-agent status until this week: "There's no way we could have known, and they didn't inform us of the fact that their status changed."

Although DeLay has been brought up on a number of ethics charges, it's not clear whether this one will have traction. Several Democratic members of Congress -- as well as an aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- also accepted trips from the group after it had registered as a foreign agent.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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