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DeLay indicted, steps down as majority leader

House leader calls charges 'sham'; Blunt picked as replacement

Rep. Tom DeLay stepped down Wednesday as House majority leader, following party rules.


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Tom DeLay

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rep. Tom DeLay stepped aside Wednesday as House majority leader after a Texas grand jury indicted him on a conspiracy charge stemming from a long-running campaign finance investigation.

DeLay, a Republican, proclaimed his innocence, blasting the charge as a "sham" and an act of "political retribution."

"I have done nothing wrong," DeLay told reporters. "I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House." (Watch Rep. DeLay's comments -- 4:23)

A grand jury in Austin charged DeLay, 58, and two associates already facing criminal charges with a single count of criminal conspiracy, accusing them of improperly funneling corporate donations to Republican candidates for the Texas legislature. (Read the indictmentexternal link)

If convicted, DeLay could face up to two years in prison and fines up to $10,000, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said.

House Republicans on Wednesday afternoon selected Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri as their acting leader. Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia and David Dreier of California also will take on additional duties, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said.

DeLay said he has received "very heartwarming" support from fellow Republicans, who also vowed the indictment would not impede the party's legislative agenda.

"He will fight this, and we give him our utmost support," said Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Blunt said DeLay would remain "an effective and influential member" of the chamber.

"We all believe that he'll return, once this indictment is out of the way, to be the leader again," he said.

DA: 'I'm doing my job'

At a news conference in Austin, Earle, a Democrat, declined to comment on any evidence he had linking DeLay to the alleged conspiracy.

Earle denied any partisan motivation, telling reporters that 12 of the 15 public corruption cases he has prosecuted involved Democrats. His record on high-profile corruption cases has been mixed.

"The law says that corporate contributions to political campaigns are illegal in Texas," he said. "The law makes such contributions a felony. My job is to prosecute felonies. I'm doing my job."

DeLay, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives since 2002, called Earle "a partisan fanatic."

"I have done nothing unlawful, unethical or, I might add, unprecedented," DeLay said.

But the indictment forced DeLay to at least temporarily give up his leadership position. (Watch: DeLay faces conspiracy charge -- 3:38)

The rules of the GOP conference call for members to give up leadership posts if they are indicted. That requirement was dropped in a push led by DeLay's allies last year, only to be restored after a storm of criticism.

DeLay does not have to resign his seat in the House, where he has represented a suburban Houston district since 1985. (Full story)

Earle has been investigating whether donations to Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee known as TRMPAC, were improperly used to help the GOP win a majority in the Texas legislature in 2002.

According to the indictment, $190,000 in corporate contributions to TRMPAC were sent to national Republican Party committees, then sent to GOP candidates in the 2002 state legislative races, which solidified Republican control.

Democratic criticism

Following those elections, Republicans led a bitterly fought mid-census redistricting push that helped the GOP pick up five Texas congressional seats.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, called the indictment "the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people."

And Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said DeLay was " neither the beginning nor the end of the Washington Republicans' ethical problems."

DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin said the indictment does not outline any specific acts DeLay took as part of the alleged conspiracy "because he didn't do anything."

There was no immediate word on when DeLay would have to appear in court, but the congressman wants a trial "before the end of the year," DeGuerin said.

"Tom DeLay is eager to get to court and get this resolved," DeGuerin said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan praised DeLay as "a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people" and a "good ally" of President Bush. Asked about the charges, McClellan said, "The president's view is that we need to let the legal process work."

Associates await trial

The two associates indicted with DeLay on Wednesday, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, are awaiting trial on other charges related to the Texas probe.

Each was charged with one count of money laundering in September, and Colyandro faces 13 additional counts of unlawful acceptance of a corporate political contribution.

Warren Robold, a Washington fund-raiser, was indicted in 2004 on charges of accepting or making corporate donations in connection with the case. TRMPAC was indicted this month, and several corporations and a trade association that contributed to it have been charged, as well.

The investigation stems from a complaint by an Austin-based watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, which praised Wednesday's indictment.

"The justice system must punish those who criminally conspire to undermine democracy -- no matter how powerful they may be," the group's director, Craig McDonald, said in a written statement.

DeLay, nicknamed "The Hammer" during his tenure as GOP whip, was admonished by the House ethics committee three times in 2004 over separate issues. The panel urged him to "temper" his future actions to comply with House rules and standards of conduct.

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