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House Leader Tom Delay to Step Aside After Indicment in Texas

Aired September 28, 2005 - 12:30   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And we're right at the half hour. I'm Daryn Kagan. Here's a look at what's happening "Now in the News."
In Afghanistan, an apparent suicide bombing rocks an Afghan national army base. It happened earlier today on the outskirts of Kabul. Nine soldiers were killed, 26 other people were wounded.

Here in the U.S., Louisiana's governor is on Capitol Hill today. But Kathleen Blanco refusing to comment on criticism by former FEMA head Michael Brown. Yesterday, Brown told lawmakers that Blanco was too slow in ordering evacuations ahead of Hurricane Katrina. The governors of Alabama and Mississippi testified before the committee and a live video conference from their states.

Today, a Texas grand jury wraps up its investigation of Tom DeLay's state political operation. We're waiting to find out if there are any last-minute indictments. The House majority leader denies any wrongdoing. He says the case is being pursued for political reasons.

News conference just wrapping up in Baton Rouge with the coroner. Dr. Louis Cataldie, talking about a number of things, including the number of dead in Louisiana, the tedious task of identifying all the dead and getting them to their family members.

But also talking about what is becoming the developing story out of Louisiana. And that, a lot of reports that came in the wake of hurricane Katrina simply were not true. Reports of murders, of shootings at the convention center, of rapes, of assaults. The police coming out and saying that they don't have confirmed reports of that.

And then today, Dr. Cataldie is saying there were no homicides at the convention center or the Superdome, despite all the rumors to the contrary. Here's what he had to say about that.


DR. LOUIS CATALDIE, LA. MEDICAL INCIDENT CMDR.: I know of no homicides or deaths -- homicide deaths -- in either one of those facilities. I can tell you, as I said before, I was there initially during the triage treating folks. And we did have some death there. And then when we returned, we retrieved ten bodies, ten human remains. None of those, to my knowledge, are homicide victims. And there were four individuals retrieved from the convention center. Again, not to my knowledge were any of those homicide victims.

QUESTION: Did you say ten in total from the Superdome?

CATALDIE: That's correct.

QUESTION: You got ten from the Superdome itself?

CATALDIE: That's right. Ten from the Superdome total. Now, I'm told that some of those individuals...


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KAGAN: And this breaking news out of Texas, concerning Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He has been indicted on a single account. Our Joe Johns standing by in Washington with more on that -- Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, that information just coming to us. We are told that the majority leader of the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, has been indicted on a single count of criminal conspiracy in Travis County, Texas. Of course, we'll wait for more word from the prosecutor. We're told the prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, will give a statement later this afternoon in Texas. We know also that at least one other associate, perhaps two other associates, of Tom DeLay face additional charges in Texas.

Now, what is not clear to us is the underlying offense that is believed to have occurred in this case. We'd like to get some more information on that. Once again, Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, according to the Travis County Clerk's Office, has been indicted on one count of criminal conspiracy. Back to you -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right. Let's break this down a little bit, Joe, for people who aren't inside the beltway and haven't followed as closely as you have. What has he allegedly done wrong?

JOHNS: Well, what we know is that there's been a continuing investigation for a great period of time in Travis County about the handling of corporate political money in that county. Now, the state of Texas does not permit people running for office in that state to take corporate money and run for political office. There have been a number of indictments. There have been indictments of corporations, indictments of three associates of Mr. DeLay there.

And the important thing to say also here, is that people who are supporters and friends of Tom DeLay have said again and again and again, and even as late as today, that if an indictment were brought against Tom DeLay, it would be in a word, ludicrous, because they say all he's been doing is politics. And that's what's been done for years. They say they vetted very carefully what they did with attorneys. And they say that any indictment against Mr. DeLay would be thrown out.

Of course, we haven't spoken to his lawyers today. We're told at least one of his attorneys, William White, who's a Democrat, by the way, was at the Travis County Courthouse in Texas today. And haven't been able to get him on the phone -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, speaking of politics, as well. The district attorney office there in Travis County, Ronnie Earle, he's a Democrat, as well. And Tom DeLay -- as you were pointing out, this has been an investigation that's been going on for a long time. He believes that he is a political target.

JOHNS: Right.

KAGAN: And that this is all political battles.

JOHNS: They've been saying it again and again, that Ronnie Earle is basically out for his own political gain, that he's been going after Tom DeLay for political purposes. Earle, of course denies it. In his view, he thinks he has to get the money changers out of the temple of politics. That's what Ronnie Earle has said.

Tom DeLay, of course, has been more measured and careful in his words because this grand jury investigation has been going on for so long. This, in fact, was to have been the last week for this current grand jury to look into these matters. And there was some question from the very start as to whether an indictment would actually be brought -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Yes, once again, for those of our viewers that are just joining us, major political news coming out of Texas. The House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been indicted on one criminal count of conspiracy. We're just getting this quote from his lawyer, who says this. His lawyer is Bill White. He says, and this is a quote: "It's a skunky indictment if they have one. Like a dead skunk in the middle of the road, it stinks to high heaven." Joe, right out of a Texan there.

JOHNS: Very colorful lawyer. He actually has -- Bill White, he has another one named Steve Brittain. We sat down with them some time ago. And they are straight out of Texas. Very straight-talking, very folksy. And they will be adversaries, of course, for the Travis County prosecutor, assuming this indictment gets very far. They're both Democrats, in fact. And Ronnie Earle has really -- he's going to be up against some powerful folks there in Travis County, Texas.

KAGAN: Let's talk about the impact there on Capitol Hill. House rules says if you are indicted, you have to step down. Is Tom DeLay expected to step down?

JOHNS: Well, from what we tell, it still requires a vote of the Republican conference that is not a rule of the House of Representatives. It's a rule of the Republicans that says if you are indicted, you have to step down. They tried to change that rule because there were concerns about the possibility of Mr. DeLay being indicted. They did change it for a while, then realized there was a political firestorm over it, changed it back to the original language. And so we're told that they actually will have to have a vote on that.

And assuming Mr. DeLay does step aside, at least temporarily, we're told, Roy Blunt would move up to majority leader. And Eric Cantor, of course, would move to majority whip. So, it would certainly require a deal -- a bit of shuffling there. And there's no word, of course, on whether Mr. DeLay would have to step down permanently or temporarily. We assume right now it would be temporarily until this charge is disposed of -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And a quick question for you here. When we say step aside, are we talking about from his leadership position or from his congressional seat all together?

JOHNS: My understanding is we're just talking about his leadership position. There is no House rule that says if you're indicted you have to step down from your office as a member of the House of Representatives. There have been a number of members of Congress who have been indicted and have not stepped down. Certainly, with the pendancy of a trial.

KAGAN: All right, Joe, you stay with us. Joe Johns on Capitol Hill. Want to -- we have our own lawyer here, our Jeffrey Toobin, our senior legal analyst, to look at what Tom DeLay faces right now. Once again, the House majority leader has been indicted on one criminal count of conspiracy.

First, Jeff, my question to you, as you join us on the phone, how serious, just in terms of a criminal charge, is this?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, it's immensely serious, Daryn. You know, I certainly have no idea whether he will be convicted or whether he's, in fact, guilty. But just the fact that he is facing a serious charge like this.

You know, as Joe was saying, that under the rules of the House, he has to step down as majority leader, I believe, temporarily. But that's enormously significant given how powerful a person he is. And, you know, he now faces the, at best, distraction, and at worst, jailtime in this scheme. So it's a very serious thing.

KAGAN: And as Joe was saying, as this indictment goes forward. What's the next step here, Jeff?

TOOBIN: Well, he will be arraigned, and then they will start pretrial motions, and then setting a trial date.

But it is worth remembering that in this investigation, there were indictments last year, and the people haven't even gone to trial yet. So this will be a slow process. And as I understand it, unless the chargers dismissed by a judge he will have to stay. He will have to remain not the majority leader. He will have to step down until the case is resolved, and that could take a year. So that's a bad -- that's bad.

KAGAN: Politically that's bad. On the investigation side of this, as you were mentioning, other people have been indicted in the same investigation. What about the process of that? And is that a process of trying to get other people around Tom DeLay? Then you get them to flip, so you go after your biggest fish?

TOOBIN: Certainly that is the strategy here. As it is often the strategy in white collar cases. And also, very much in DeLay's favor, the Travis County District Attorney is a Democratic elected official, so he has been claiming all along that this case is politically inspired against him, and that's an argument that may resonate with voters. But that doesn't stop the charges from being filed. He's still got to face it. He's still under indictment. He's still got to step down. But he does have the argument that this is just a political vendetta against him.

KAGAN: And what about this idea of going after a conspiracy charge? We are talking about politics, about potential election violations. But as I was reading, if you're just talking about the code, he can only be indicted in his home county, and that's Fort Ben; that's not Travis County.

TOOBIN: Well, Daryn, you may be a little ahead of me on that aspect of the legal case against him. It is sometimes said by prosecutors, and I sometimes have said it myself, is that when you can't charge someone with the substantiative count. When you can't charge them with committing a crime, you sort of go to your backup position, which is charging them with conspiracy. Sometimes it's a way of bolstering a weak case. Whether that's the case here, I don't know, but that's been the case historically.

KAGAN: All right, Jeff, if you'll stay with us on the phone, I want to go back to our Joe Johns, who's on Capitol Hill with an update on the story on Tom DeLay -- Joe.

JOHNS: The update is that Mr. DeLay was in the office of the House speaker today. We were told that. CNN's Ted Barrett tells us, in fact, that DeLay's chief of staff now confirms the indictment has been reported to Mr. DeLay. Still looking for him for a word, obviously. We spoke to him a little bit earlier today off camera. At that time, he didn't know what was going on. Simply said, I have no idea. I'm not answering any questions. Something you might expect.

There's been a lot of speculation here on Capitol Hill that something was happening, because Mr. DeLay customarily has a news conference off camera talking to reporters about the week, which was to have been a very busy week here on Capital Hill, for the House of Representatives, canceled that meeting with reporters very suddenly yesterday, only adding to the speculation that an indictment might be on the way.

So the latest headline from here is that the chief of staff for Mr. DeLay now confirming to CNN's Ted Barrett that the majority leader of the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, has been indicted on one count of criminal conspiracy in Texas -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right, we are going to continue to follow this major breaking political story out of Washington D.C. and out of Texas. Joe Johns on Capitol Hill, Jeff Toobin on the phone.

Our coverage continues. Right now a quick break.


KAGAN: And we're getting back to this major breaking political story out of Washington D.C. And out of Texas, a story that CNN was first to bring to you. Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been indicted on one criminal count of conspiracy. We have our coverage with our Joe Johns on Capitol Hill, our Bill Schneider in Washington D.C. as well, And Jeff Toobin on the phone, talking about the legal aspect of this case.

Joe, let's start with you, what we know about the indictment and what those charges stem from.

JOHNS: We do know it is an indictment for criminal conspiracy. We do know that in Texas there has been a long-running grand jury investigation, run by the Democrat prosecutor Ronnie Earle, into allegations that TRMPAC, a political-action committee essentially raised a bunch of money, took some of that money, funneled it through Washington, then sent it back to Texas where it could be used, even though it was corporate money. And the use of corporate money in Texas, political campaigns, is against the law.

So we'd still like to know a little bit more about what is being alleged in this indictment handed out by the grand jury. And I'm sure we will be getting to that.

In the meantime, we do know also that the chief of staff, or Tom DeLay has now confirmed that he has in fact been indicted. Apparently DeLay spoke earlier today with the House speaker.

The question, of course, now is what happens. The presumption is that DeLay would step aside, because House Republicans said any member of the leadership who is indicted would need to step aside. And the question is, who takes the place of Tom DeLay? Assuming he does that. He's the second-most powerful member of the House of Representatives. We had been told to expect the normal progression of things, which would be Roy Blunt moving up to majority leader. But there are some indications now, the Associated Press reporting, David Dreier, who is the Rules Committee chairman in the House of Representatives, might also be asked by the House Speaker to take over the position of majority leader -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And any word -- you said you were talking to Tom DeLay's chief of staff. Any word on when we might hear from him?

JOHNS: Not clear. In fact, not me personally, but Ted Barrett, our House of Representatives producer, has actually spoken with the chief of staff. That's where that comes from. Not clear when we'll hear from Mr. DeLay.

We do know that earlier today, the office of Ronnie Earle in Texas was talking about a news conference some time after noon Central Time. So, we're expecting to hear also from the prosecutor. He's been accused of going on a political vendetta in his investigation of these political activities in Texas. And he has pretty much stood up to that, and gone ahead with this indictment, even though a lot of his critics have said it would be very hard to get a conviction of Tom DeLay on these facts, at least as we know them, Daryn.

KAGAN: Ronnie Earle is the district attorney in Travis County, and as we've pointed out, a Democrat. So we don't know if we're going to hear from the House majority leader, but we have heard from one of his attorneys, Bill White, who, Joe, I think you were pointing out, is a Democrat, as well. But not a happy one about what's happened to his client today. He says, quote, "it's a skunky indictment if they have one." Which now we know that they do. Bill White telling that to reporters earlier today. "Like a dead skunk in the middle of the road, it stinks to high heaven." But it is what they're going to be talking about all over Washington.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst Bill Schneider. What do you make out of this development concerning Tom DeLay?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well, it is a very serious development that Tom DeLay has to, at least temporarily, step aside. There was a move about a year ago not to force anyone in the leadership to step aside facing indictments, precisely because they were very suspicious of this Texas grand jury. They thought it was political. They thought it might try to indict Tom DeLay.

But under public protest when they tried to change that rule, the Republicans in the House of Representatives chose not to do that and said yes, indeed, if any member of the leadership is indicted, that person has to step aside. And DeLay has said that he will do that facing indictment, as he does.

KAGAN: All right, Bill, I'm going to get back to you. I want to look at the legal aspect of this. And we have Jeff Toobin on the phone with us. Jeff, let's first of all look at the count. Conspiracy. What does it mean? And what did he allegedly do wrong?

TOOBIN: Well, the gist of this investigation is that Texas law prohibits corporate money from being used in political campaigns. The money has to come from individuals, not corporations. The gist of this whole investigation that has been going on now for well more than a year is that DeLay's political operation took corporate money and illegally, improperly, funneled it into the redistricting fight that went on in Texas after the 2000 census, very important fight just created several new Republican congressmen in Texas.

The issue is that because it's a conspiracy count, DeLay is not charged with actually using money improperly, corporate money improperly. He is charged with agreeing with others to use money improperly. It's a weaker count, it's a weaker kind of case, but it's still a serious criminal charge. And even if he's acquitted, down the road, or the charges are dismissed, under the rules of the House, he has to step down as majority leader. So the very existence of the charge is almost as important as, you know, whether he's ultimately vindicated or convicted.

KAGAN: You were saying earlier that the conspiracy charge, as you were saying, it's a lesser charge, but perhaps gets tacked on there when you can't make the case that you're trying to make?

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, that is, you know, when prosecutors are, you know, being honest with each other, they often say that. They say, look, we couldn't make the substantive count, so we're making a conspiracy account. You know, I don't know if that's what happened here. I certainly don't know the facts available to this grand jury, because, of course, those proceedings are secret. But, historically, they have been a weaker cases than the ultimate substantiative counts. But, you know, conspiracies are crimes, too. There's nothing shameful about bringing a conspiracy case. And it is a felony, as I understand it. So, DeLay faces the possibility of prison time in this.

KAGAN: And, you know, we were talking -- the indictment coming out of a grand jury. People facing charges often critical of that process because it's really weighted in the favor of the prosecution when you go before a grand jury.

TOOBIN: Right. The famous line about grand juries is the former chief judge of New York said any decent prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich if they wanted. You know, prosecutors control grand juries. They are the only people who appear in front of them. They control what witnesses are called, they control what evidence is presented. And if a prosecutor wants an indictment, almost always the prosecutor's going to get an indictment. So...

KAGAN: Jeff, let me just jump in here. Because we do now have a statement from Tom DeLay and it is major news and a major development in this story. This is from -- right from Representative DeLay. Releasing the statement saying, quote: "I have notified the speaker that I will temporarily step aside from my position as majority leader, pursuant to rules of the House Republican Conference and the actions of the Travis County District Attorney today"

With that news, let's bring our Bill Schneider back in. Bill, an expected move. Yet, really gets your attention of the seriousness of this one conspiracy count that Tom DeLay now faces.

SCHNEIDER: Well, under the rules of the Republican control, who are the majority in the House of Representative, this reminds a lot of people of the kind of ethics wars we saw in Congress for so many years, back in the late '80s and '90s, the House banking scandal. The ouster of Jim Wright, the speaker of the House. In that case, it wasn't a criminal indictment, it was an ethics violation that he was charged with. And there were ethics charges flying around speaker Newt Gingrich, who resigned for political reasons.

But there was a lot of ethics warfare going on in Congress for the 1990s. There was a temporary truce on those ethics wars for a while over the last few years. But now it looks like they've heated up again with the ratcheting up of political warfare. And this is particularly important, because this is not an ethics violation of the House, this is a criminal indictment by a Texas grand jury, albeit one that a lot of Republicans suspect may have partisan motives.

KAGAN: All right. Bill Schneider, thank you for that. Once again, our breaking news out of Washington D.C. and of Texas. The majority leader Tom DeLay announcing he will step aside from that leadership position in the wake of this one conspiracy count that has been filed against him, an indictment out of Travis County, Texas.

More on this just ahead. Right now, a quick break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAGAN: And getting back to our breaking news story. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay announcing just minutes ago in a statement that he will, indeed, step aside from his leadership responsibilities in the House in the wake of the news coming out of Travis County, Texas, that he has been indicted on one criminal conspiracy count. It has to do with an alleged election code violation back from 2002.

Clearly, Tom DeLay not happy about this. Have not heard exact from him, except for his plans to step aside. But his lawyer releasing this statement, saying, quote, "it is a skunky indictment if they have one." That coming from Bill White, saying, "like a dead skunk in the middle of the road, it just stinks to high heaven."

And yet, with the current House Republican rules, Tom DeLay releasing this statement, saying that "I have notified the speaker I will temporarily step aside from my position as majority leader, pursuant to the rules of the House Republican Conference and actions to the Travis County District Attorney." That happening today.

It is expected, by the way, that speaker Dennis Hastert will recommend that Congressman David Dreier of California step into those duties temporarily, into the majority leader position.

Our coverage is going to continue here on CNN. This story just developing and breaking, which you heard here, by the way, first on CNN.

Kyra Phillips takes over with LIVE FROM. I'm Daryn Kagan and I will see you tomorrow.


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