A Texas grand jury on Wednesday charged Representative Tom DeLay, one of the most powerful US politicians, with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme, forcing him to relinquish his post as majority leader of the House of Representatives. A defiant DeLay insisted he was innocent and called the prosecutor a "fanatic."
DeLay, a conservative Republican, is the first House leader to be indicted while in office in at least a century, according to congressional historians. He was accused of a criminal conspiracy along with two political associates, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis.
The indictment accused DeLay, 58, of a conspiracy to violate Texas election law, which prohibits use of corporate donations to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates.
The alleged scheme worked in a roundabout way, with the donations going to a DeLay-founded political committee, then to the Republican National Committee and eventually to Republican candidates in Texas.
"What we do here is more important than who we are," Missouri Representative Roy Blunt said Wednesday after the rank and file named him as DeLay's replacement, at least for the time being. "We have an agenda to move forward here."
Democrats, 11 long years in the minority, said the Republicans offered nothing of the sort.
DeLay's indictment marks "the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people," said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader.
Even as DeLay professed his innocence and his lawyers said they hoped to avoid having him handcuffed, fingerprinted and photographed, potential for fresh controversy surfaced.
Records on file with the Federal Election Commission show that Blunt's political action committee has paid roughly US$88,000 in fees since 2003 to a consultant facing indictment in Texas in the same case as DeLay.
DeLay's indictment produced a public show of unity among Republicans and a scarcely concealed outbreak of power politics, at a time when polls show dwindling support for President George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress. Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Bill First, a Tennessee Republican, faces federal investigations into the sale of stock.
DeLay flashed defiance during the day as he embarked on a round of post-indictment media interviews. Summoning reporters to his office in the Capitol -- the one he would soon vacate -- he denounced Texas prosecutor Ronald Earle as "an unabashed partisan zealot."
"I am innocent. Mr. Earle and his staff know it. And I will prove it," he said.
"Our job is to prosecute abuses of power and to bring those abuses to the public," Earle responded in Texas. Rebutting charges of partisanship, he said he has investigated four times as many Democrats as Republicans.
DeLay, 58, was indicted on a single felony count of conspiring with two political associates -- Ellis and Colyandro -- to violate state election law by using corporate donations illegally.
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