WASHINGTON (AP) – A Texas grand jury indicted Rep. Tom DeLay and two political associates on charges of conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme, forcing the House majority leader to temporarily relinquish his post. A defiant DeLay insisted he was innocent and called the prosecutor a “partisan fanatic.”

Sarah Royce
U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R

“I have done nothing wrong. – I am innocent,” DeLay told a Capitol Hill news conference during which he criticized the Texas prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, repeatedly. DeLay said the charges amounted to “one of the weakest and most baseless indictments in American history.”

In Austin, Earle told reporters, “Our job is to prosecute abuses of power and to bring those abuses to the public.” He has noted previously that he has prosecuted many Democrats in the past.

Republicans at the Capitol selected Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) the current Republican whip – No. 3 in the leadership ranks – to fill the vacancy temporarily.

Reps. David Dreier of California, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the chief deputy whip, will assist Blunt with some of the majority leader duties.

Republicans expressed their backing for DeLay, the first House leader to be indicted in office in at least a century.

“He will fight this and we give him our utmost support,” said Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois following a private GOP meeting.

DeLay said he was certain the indictment would be dismissed and shrugged off the charges as a “political witch hunt” designed to drive a wedge in the Republican ranks.

“If the Democrats think we’re going to go crawl in a hole and not accomplish our agenda, I wish they could have been a fly on the wall” of the closed-door meeting, DeLay said after the session.

The indictment accused DeLay, 58, of a conspiracy to violate Texas election law, which prohibits the use of corporate donations to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. Prosecutors say 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 GOP candidates in Texas.

The indictment stems from a plan DeLay helped set in motion in 2001 to help Republicans win control of the Texas House in the 2002 elections for the first time since Reconstruction.

Indicted with DeLay were two of his associates, John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay’s national political committee.

The grand jury’s foreman, William Gibson, told The Associated Press that Earle didn’t pressure members one way or the other. “Ronnie Earle didn’t indict him. The grand jury indicted him,” Gibson told The Associated Press in an interview at his home.

Gibson, 76, a retired sheriff’s deputy in Austin, said of DeLay: “He’s probably doing a good job. I don’t have anything against him. Just something happened.”

The Texas Republican temporarily stepped down from the No. 2 leadership post that he had held since 2002, as required by House rules.

Blunt said he was confident DeLay would be cleared of the allegations and return to his leadership job.

Criminal conspiracy is a state felony punishable by six months to two years in a state jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan said the president still considered DeLay – a fellow Texan – a friend and an effective leader in Congress.

“Congressman DeLay is a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people,” McClellan said. “I think the president’s view is that we need to let the legal process work.”

The indictment puts the Republicans – who control the White House, Senate and House – on the defensive. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) also is fending off questions of ethical improprieties. And less than a week ago, a former White House official was arrested in the investigation of Jack Abramoff, a high-powered lobbyist and fundraiser.

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