HOUSTON // Six days after an indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, on conspiracy charges roiled the political establishment, a new grand jury issued a second indictment yesterday charging him with the far more serious crime of money laundering - a first-degree felony that could bring a lengthy prison term.
Under the internal rules of the Republican Party, the conspiracy indictment forced DeLay to step down from his position as House majority leader. That charge, a fourth-degree felony punishable by a state prison term of two years, came after a wide-ranging investigation into allegations that DeLay and his lieutenants had hijacked Texas elections by illegally funneling corporate money into the bank accounts of Republican state candidates.
DeLay has been defiant ever since, saying the charge was the result of a political vendetta and vowing that he would soon be vindicated and reassume his position as a premier power broker on Capitol Hill.
But yesterday, a second grand jury issued an indictment charging DeLay with conspiracy to commit money laundering, a second-degree felony, and money laundering, a first-degree felony.
Combined, the charges could bring a life prison term. Although such stiff punishment is virtually unheard of in cases of political wrongdoing, "This is serious stuff," said University of Texas law professor George E. Dix. "They have obviously upped the ante."
There was considerable disagreement over the meaning and importance of the latest indictment. The new grand jury was impaneled at noon yesterday, which means Texas prosecutors were able to persuade its members to issue the more serious charges in a matter of hours.
Craig McDonald, director of the Austin-based Texans for Public Justice - a group that tries to fight the influence of money in politics - said the speed of the indictment could be evidence that the case is "pretty cut and dry."
"The crime is simple," he said. "Perhaps the evidence is simple too."
But DeLay called the charges another example of "prosecutorial abuse" on the part of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is leading the investigation.
"He is trying to pull the legal equivalent of a 'do-over,' since he knows very well that the charges he brought against me last week are totally manufactured and illegitimate," DeLay said. "This is an abomination of justice."
Earle, a Democrat, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's lawyer, pointed out last night that the new charges came shortly after he filed court papers in Austin insisting that the first indictment was so flawed that it should be thrown out. In that motion, DeGuerin argued that the original conspiracy charge was based on a law that didn't exist in 2002, when the alleged financial wrongdoing took place.
"He rushed in front of a new grand jury," DeGuerin said. "I think Ronnie Earle and his crew spent some sleepless nights in the past few days. ... It's like a bunch of Keystone Kops running around up there."
Dix pointed out that while the indictments overlap in several areas, there are critical differences.
Both focus on a single financial transaction - a $190,000 check that was written to the Republican National Committee in Washington by Austin-based Texans for a Republican Majority, founded by DeLay in 2001. The money had been collected from corporations nationwide. It was distributed to seven legislative candidates in Texas, although GOP attorneys say the money came from a different account.
The first indictment appears to focus on the effort by DeLay's political action committee to collect the corporate donations and funnel them to the RNC. The new one focuses on the back end of that transaction, when the RNC distributed the money to the legislative candidates.
All sides agree that more than $600,000 donated by corporations was used in the 2002 elections, although there is disagreement about whether that was legal or not.
While Texas law bans the use of corporate contributions for direct campaigning, it does allow candidates to use such money for "administrative" costs.
That had traditionally been interpreted as overhead costs, such as electric bills at a campaign office. DeLay's fundraisers were far more aggressive, using the money to pay for such items as phone banks.
The money from the RNC helped fuel a political takeover in which the Republican Party, long the minority in Texas, gained control over the governor's mansion and both houses of the Legislature for the first time in 130 years.
At DeLay's urging, Republican leaders seized upon their new influence to redraw congressional maps that were friendly to their allies. The move was so controversial that Democrats, under cover of darkness, fled the Texas Capitol in protest - causing Republicans to send the famed Texas Rangers after them.
In the 2004 elections, the new congressional districts gave the GOP a six-seat majority in the state's congressional delegation. The gains helped cement the GOP's control of Congress.
Scott Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.