Power outage

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You must give Tom DeLay this much: Mere hours into his indictment on conspiracy charges, the House Majority Leader-in-Exile exhibited the self-confidence of a shoplifter demanding a refund.

The indictment, he said, was "an act of blatant political partisanship" by "a rogue district attorney" who had conned a grand jury into issuing "one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history." Blatant partisanship? A rogue district attorney? One of the most baseless indictments in American history?

Along with never having heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, DeLay seems ignorant of precisely what it is that makes a man an irresistible target for the gods of prosecution: hubris.

Eleven years ago, inspired by Newt Gingrich's feverish after-hours floor speeches and propelled by voter disgust at the antics of House Democrats who mulcted their post office accounts and floated worthless checks on the House Savings and Loan, the Republicans rolled into power promising a new era. Tom DeLay was to be a model of conservative probity. Instead, he became the Republican Dan Rostenkowski.

Within hours of Rep. DeLay's indictment, Republican House members found a two-page set of talking points in their in-boxes. The defense of Tom DeLay began with the Swift Boating of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle.

"The indictment against Congressman DeLay is only one example in Earle's long history of using the judiciary and abusing legal processes for political gain," the memo advises. "No citizen, including Congressman DeLay, should be the victim of a rogue, partisan prosecutor acting with improper motives. Earle's behavior is unethical, unlawful and should not be allowed to continue." Over 29 years in office, Ronnie Earle has prosecuted 16 office holders -- 11 Democrats and five Republicans. Earle is such a stickler for ethics he once charged himself with failing to file a campaign expense report on time.

Simply consider the origins of Earle's investigation into DeLay. It arose from a 2003 congressional redistricting bill thrown into the Texas legislature notwithstanding the fact that 2003 was not a reapportionment year. Texas had redrawn its congressional map a year earlier, as had other states. But DeLay saw the chance to widen the Republican hold on Texas and, by extension, on Congress, by a post-reapportionment gerrymander. Texas Republicans would need a solid majority, given that they were about to do a hippopotamus stomp across established practice.

In 2001, DeLay had founded Texans for a Republican Majority PAC and, in 2002, it needed a big infusion of cash to funnel to selected races so he'd have the super-majority to push his second reapportionment through in 2003.

TRMPAC collected money from an assortment of corporations, including Sears, Roebuck and Co., Bacardi U.S.A., Questerra Corp. and Diversified Collection Services Inc.

Texas law forbids corporations from contributing to state political candidates. Texans for a Republican Majority found a way around that. They sent a check for $190,000 to the Republican National Committee and its subsidiary, the Republican National State Elections Committee. The RNSEC, in turn, dispensed $190,000 to seven Republican candidates.

This wouldn't have gotten much attention but for what followed.

As DeLay dictated policy to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 11 Democratic state senators and 50 state house members lit out of Austin, determined to halt the legislative session by denying Perry the quorum he needed to call them into session.

DeLay's office contacted the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI and Department of Justice to track the plane of one legislator, Pete Laney, and see if Justice would help round up the lawmakers, return them to Texas so they could be taken into custody and forced back into the state capital.

It's about power. Were DeLay a backbencher from Sheboygan, his behavior would cause little disruption, save to himself when some enterprising prosecutor decided to kick him down a notch. But Tom DeLay is about power, and when a man starts channeling Huey Long his tactics are likely to invite suspicion.

Already, DeLay's personal lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, is under indictment on charges of fraud. This is the same Jack Abramoff who boasted that he was the one with access to DeLay and who treated DeLay to golf trips in Scotland and -- who'd have thunk it -- Moscow. This was not a matter of buying a man; it was an endeavor to buy his power.

Last week, caught in the trap of his own ethical posturing from a decade earlier, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, joined the ranks of cashiered House leaders. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a man who divorced his wife of 31 years to marry a lobbyist for his largest campaign contributor, Philip Morris, was handpicked by DeLay to succeed him -- temporarily, of course. One doesn't just hand over power to some bum.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist, droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965.


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