Tom DeLay has been indicted by a Travis County grand jury under the direction of District Attorney Ronnie Earle in Texas for conspiracy to violate Texas campaign finance laws and has stepped down, "temporarily," he says, as House majority leader, as required by House Republicans' rules.
This is political dynamite. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was quick to charge Republicans with a "climate of corruption," and other Democrats will point to the recent indictments of a White House procurement official and of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, on unrelated charges, as further instances of such a climate.
DeLay charged Earle with abuse of prosecutorial discretion. "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." I am inclined to agree with DeLay, though I remain open to persuasion as more facts are produced and the law becomes clearer.
In the first place, the brief indictment does not say that DeLay did anything to forward the conspiracy, only that he entered into it with two longtime aides who are then accused of violating Texas law. A conspiracy charge does not have to allege that the defendant did something to further the conspiracy, but such charges usually do.
Second, it is by no means clear that DeLay's associates violated the Texas law. Texas campaign law prohibits corporate contributions to state candidates. The charge is that DeLay's associates collected corporate contributions, sent them to the Republican National State Elections Committee, "a nonfederal component of the Republican National Committee," and that the RNC or the RNSEC sent about the same sum of money back to Texas candidates -- "exchanged" the money, in Earle's words at his press conference. But, unless DeLay's aides proceeded without legal advice -- highly unlikely these days for operatives of either party -- they were contributing money to a committee entitled to take and spend corporate cash, and then a committee that took only individual contributions sent money back to Texas candidates.
That's not illegal unless the Texas law expressly forbids it. It is a general legal rule that criminal laws are narrowly construed, against the government. If the government wants to criminalize conduct, then it must do so very clearly. Otherwise, a citizen could be sent to jail for doing things he had no way to know were criminal.