WASHINGTON // Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican whose bare-knuckled style propelled him to the top echelons of the House and drew allegations of ethical lapses, was forced to step aside as majority leader yesterday, after a Texas grand jury indicted him for conspiracy to break campaign finance laws.
The one-count indictment accuses DeLay of conspiring with two associates, John Colyandro and James Ellis, to illegally funnel corporate contributions to candidates for the Texas Legislature.
Under party rules, he must temporarily relinquish his No. 2 post. But a defiant DeLay promised yesterday to "win exoneration" from the charges handed up by a Travis County grand jury on the last day of its investigation.
The move was designed to bring some stability to an unsettled and increasingly fractious Republican Conference as lawmakers eye the possibility of a future without one of their most powerful and effective - albeit controversial - members.
Leaders said the change in leadership would not torpedo their ambitions for the rest of the year.
"The conference has to go on," Hastert said. "We have work to do."
Showing flashes of the hot temper that earned him the nickname "The Hammer" during his years as chief nose-counter in the House, DeLay branded Texas District Attorney Ronnie Earle - the Democrat who brought the indictment - "an unabashed partisan zealot" who had abused his power.
"I am innocent," DeLay, 58, an 11-term House veteran, told reporters in a brief mid-afternoon appearance in his Capitol office. "Mr. Earle and his staff know it, and I will prove it."
DeLay called the indictment weak, and said it was political retribution for his prominent role in pushing through a hard-fought Texas redistricting plan that cost Democrats House seats.
"I have the facts, the law and the truth on my side," DeLay said.
DeLay "is a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman.
For now, the indictment has darkened the ethics cloud over DeLay, already stung by allegations that he took luxurious foreign trips paid for by embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a close friend, in violation of House rules.
Democrats signaled they would use DeLay's indictment as evidence of a pattern of unscrupulous Republican behavior.
Howard Dean, the party leader, said the grand jury had done "what the Republican-controlled federal government has failed repeatedly to do, which is hold Republicans in Washington accountable for their culture of corruption."
DeLay's indictment carries with it a sentence of six months to two years in a state prison and a fine of up to $10,000. House Republican rules mandate than any member indicted on charges carrying a sentence of two years or more give up his or her leadership post. In a show of solidarity with DeLay last year, Republicans scrapped the rule; but they reversed themselves in January, chastened by a backlash in their ranks.
The charges announced yesterday allege that DeLay conspired to use a political action committee he created, Texans for a Republican Majority, to divert corporate campaign contributions to seven Texas candidates. Texas law bars such corporate contributions. The indictment accuses DeLay of participating in a scheme in which corporate donations were sent to the Republican National Committee and exchanged for funds raised from individuals - which are allowed under Texas law - before being passed on to the candidates.
Colyandro and Ellis, who were indicted for money laundering in the case, handled the transaction, according to the charges. Another DeLay associate, Warren RoBold of Maryland, was also charged in the 2004 indictment. Yesterday's indictment doesn't specify what role DeLay is alleged to have played.
DeLay denied knowledge of what Colyandro and Ellis had done with money that came into the political group, known as TRMPAC, telling Fox News yesterday that "I didn't know what they were doing."
"I had nothing to do with the day-to-day operations" of the committee, DeLay said.
Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's attorney, called the case politically motivated and suggested that it might never reach a jury. He said he would ask for a trial before the end of the year.
"When we go to trial - if we even get to trial, because the judge may throw this out - ... any fair jury is going to find that Tom DeLay did nothing wrong," DeGuerin said.
Still, some attorneys said it was unlikely that DeLay would get the chance to clear his name until sometime next year.
Jan W. Baran, a Republican campaign finance lawyer, said it is "almost certain" that the case would be heard and decided in the middle of next year, just as members of Congress are running for re-election.
But Earle would have to meet a steep burden to convict DeLay, Baransaid. Among the issues he must prove: whether the transaction in question is actually illegal under Texas law and whether DeLay participated in it.
DeLay, a scrappy native Texan who ran a pest extermination business before going into politics, is among the most powerful and feared Republicans in Washington. An ardent conservative and born-again Christian, DeLay is as popular with his party's base as he is detested by Democrats.
In Congress, DeLay's flair for behind-the-scenes deal-making has fueled his rise, earning him loyalty and allowing him to impose a remarkable measure of party discipline. Just as important, DeLay's relentless pursuit of close ties with lobbyists and corporate interests have helped Republicans build a well-oiled campaign finance machine.
But in building a political franchise based on both hard legislative bargaining and copious campaign money, DeLay has often skated close to ethical lines. He has drawn more admonitions from the Ethics Committee than any other sitting member of Congress, according to records compiled by the panel.
Last year alone, the committee admonished DeLay for three infractions. A golf outing DeLay enjoyed with energy executives created the appearance of giving special access to donors, the panel said. His use of the Federal Aviation Administration to track down Texas Democrats who had fled to Oklahoma to avoid voting on his redistricting plan was improper, it ruled. And the committee rebuked DeLay for promising retiring Michigan Rep. Nick Smith that Republicans would endorse his son to succeed him in exchange for Smith's "yes" vote on a Medicare prescription drug measure.
In 1999, the ethics panel gave DeLay a warning after he threatened to punish a trade association for hiring a Democrat as its president. Two years before that, DeLay got a slap on the wrist from the committee for creating the appearance that an individual could get access to lawmakers or action by Congress in exchange for campaign contributions.
Government ethics watchdog groups, who have long vilified DeLay for his aggressive fundraising tactics and close ties to lobbyists, seized on the indictment to renew their demands for the Texan's resignation.
DeLay "is the personification of scandal and disgrace that is the hallmark of today's Congress," said Ellen Miller, the deputy director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future.
Some Republican veterans said that despite DeLay's popularity and sheer force as a party leader, lawmakers were tiring of defending him, especially as they head into an election year.
"There's a certain amount of DeLay fatigue out there from members" of Congress, said a former DeLay aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The last thing you want is to have Tom's picture out there all over the place. If you're a Republican, you don't want to go out there and defend Tom DeLay."
Many Republicans - including those from Maryland - said they would welcome DeLay back if he is acquitted.
The rule forcing DeLay to step down is "really dumb," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland, adding that most Americans would see DeLay's troubles as a "tempest in a teapot" worthy of concern only inside the Beltway.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore said Republicans were right to reinstate the rule, if only to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
"Most of us feel like we'd rather take the high road than leave any lingering doubts," Gilchrest said.