Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader and a driving Republican power in Washington, was forced to step aside from his leadership post on Wednesday after a grand jury in Texas indicted him on a charge of conspiring to violate election laws in his home state.
The indictment, in Travis County, which includes Austin, the state capital, accused him of conspiring with two previously indicted aides to violate a century-old Texas ban on the use of corporate money by state political candidates, by funneling thousands of dollars in corporate contributions through the Republican National Committee.
House Republicans gathered within hours of the indictment's becoming public, and chose Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 House Republican, to assume Mr. DeLay's duties temporarily. They assigned Representative David Dreier of California to take on more responsibilities. Party rules required Mr. DeLay to step down if indicted.
Earlier in the day, there had been indications that Mr. Dreier might be named to Mr. DeLay's place temporarily, which did not sit well with some House conservatives. But a Congressional aide said Wednesday night that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert had already chosen Mr. Blunt before the conservatives voiced their objections.
At a news conference in his office, Mr. DeLay described the veteran Democratic prosecutor who brought the indictment - Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney - as a "partisan fanatic" leading a "coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution." Mr. DeLay said he had done nothing wrong.
"I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House," Mr. DeLay, who is in his 11th term, told reporters, adding: "My defense in this case will not be technical or legalistic; it will be categorical and absolute. I am innocent."
House Republicans rallied to the defense of their leader, a shrewd political force who is credited with using his hard-edge skills to maintain the Republicans' hold on the House and to advance the conservative Republican agenda.
Mr. DeLay and his allies described the one conspiracy count against him as motivated by anger over his role in a state redistricting plan that sent five new Texas Republicans to Congress after their party took control of the Statehouse in 2002. Mr. DeLay's actions in Texas during the 2002 campaign are the focus of the indictment issued Wednesday. If convicted, he could face up to two years in prison.
"Tom DeLay's effectiveness as majority leader is the best explanation for what happened in Texas today," Mr. Blunt said. "I'm confident that a full explanation of the facts in this case will clear Tom's name and return him to his position as majority leader."
But many Republicans also acknowledged that the indictment was of grave concern, adding to a litany of misconduct accusations centered on Republicans in Congress, including Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, and at the White House.
"It may be a witch hunt, but it is a huge problem," Representative Zach Wamp, Republican of Tennessee, said of the conspiracy charge. "He will probably be exonerated in the long term, but that is a long time."
The indictment was another setback for the Republican majority, which has been reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration's handling of the initial relief effort and internal divisions about how extensive the recovery plan should be.
Democrats who have long sparred with Mr. DeLay and come out on the losing end say his indictment reinforces their view that the Republican majority has lost its ethical bearings.
"The criminal indictment of Majority Leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people," said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader.
For years, first as the House majority whip and then the majority leader, Mr. DeLay has been an aggressive partisan as well as a proponent of socially conservative ideas. When others were urging that Republicans drop the idea of impeaching President Bill Clinton in 1998, Mr. DeLay almost single-handedly kept up the pressure that led to the House impeachment vote.
Anticipating the possibility that Mr. DeLay could be indicted in the Texas case, House Republicans last year dropped an internal party rule that required a party leader to step down if indicted on a felony charge. But lawmakers encountered serious criticism of the change from members of the public and Democratic critics who saw it as a backward step, and they reversed the decision.
During their private session Wednesday to replace Mr. DeLay, some Republicans complained that the rule was an open invitation to prosecutors to lodge an indictment and influence the makeup of the leadership of Congress.
At the White House, the chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, said President Bush continued to see Mr. DeLay as a "good ally" and as "a leader we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people."
Asked about the indictment, Mr. McClellan said, "The president's view is that we need to let the legal process work."
Mr. DeLay has been a linchpin of Republican success over the past decade, since playing a role in the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. He is often called the Hammer in print for his hard-nosed approach, though it is not a nickname anyone uses with Mr. DeLay himself.
Instead, he has built his loyalty among Republican members by raising money for them and looking out for their legislative interests.
The indictment in Travis County was brought against Mr. DeLay; James W. Ellis, the head of Mr. DeLay's national political committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, or Armpac; and John D. Colyandro, the former head of Texans for a Republican Majority, a state political action committee. Mr. Ellis and Mr. Colyandro were also indicted last September on related charges.
The new indictment centered on Mr. DeLay's involvement with Texans for a Republican Majority, which he created with his aides in 2001 and which was modeled on Armpac.
During his career in the House, Mr. DeLay has used Armpac to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate donations for other Republican candidates, who in turn showed their loyalty to Mr. DeLay by electing him to the House leadership.
With the Texas committee, Mr. DeLay mapped a Republican takeover of his home state's Legislature, which the party achieved in 2002. The victory allowed Republicans to redraw Congressional districts in Texas, making it easier to elect Republicans to the House and solidifying Mr. DeLay's power in Congress.
In the indictment on Wednesday, prosecutors essentially accused Mr. DeLay and his aides of engineering their 2002 victory in Texas through money laundering - specifically, by violating a state law that bars companies from donating to individual candidates. The law is a legacy of struggles at the turn of the last century between farmers and ranchers on the one hand and so-called corporate robber barons eager to seize their lands.
The indictment charged that $155,000 in donations to the committee from six companies, including Sears Roebuck and Bacardi, the rum maker, were put into a bank account along with other money raised by Texans for a Republican Majority.
In September 2002, the indictment shows, the committee sent a check for $190,000 drawn from that account to the Republican National Committee in Washington. The check, which is reproduced in the indictment, was made out to the Republican National State Elections Committee, which oversees state races for the national party.
The indictment charged that Mr. Ellis, Mr. DeLay's aide, then provided Terry Nelson, President Bush's political director in his 2004 campaign and a Republican National Committee official, with a list of state Republican candidates in Texas who were to receive money, along with the amount of money for each.
The indictment suggests that the proceeds from the $190,000 check were then laundered back to Texas in the form of donations to the seven Republican candidates, in violation of the state's corporate money ban.
Mr. Earle, the Travis County prosecutor, had suggested as recently as a few weeks ago that he did not expect to indict Mr. DeLay, and lawyers and law enforcement officials in Austin speculated Wednesday that he must have obtained the cooperation of an important witness in deciding to bring charges.
At a news conference in Austin, Mr. Earle would not comment on details of the indictment, which was approved by the grand jury on its last day before disbanding.
Texas is not the only place Mr. DeLay's conduct is being scrutinized. He has called for a House ethics committee review of travel brought into question for potential violation of House rules, and he also figures in federal investigations of Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist and onetime DeLay confidant.
Mr. DeLay was also rebuked three times last year by the House ethics committee for fund-raising abuses and misuse of government agencies, a series of actions that ensnarled the committee in a fight over procedural changes sought by Republicans in the wake of the DeLay decisions. The chairman who oversaw the investigations, Representative Joel Hefley, Republican of Colorado, was also replaced.
"I think it's unfortunate for everybody, particularly for Tom, and I hope there's nothing to it," Mr. Hefley said of the indictment. "We'll just have to play it out and see."
David D. Kirkpatrick and Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting from Washington for this article, and Nate Levy from Austin, Tex.
- 185 Corruption