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Grand jury to wrap up probe into DeLay organization

Conspiracy counts make it possible to indict leader

WASHINGTON -- A Texas grand jury's recent interest in conspiracy charges could lead to last-minute criminal indictments -- possibly against House majority leader Tom DeLay -- as it wraps up its investigation today into DeLay's state political organization, according to lawyers with knowledge of the case.

Conspiracy counts against two DeLay associates this month raised concerns with DeLay's lawyers, who fear the chances are greater that the majority leader could be charged with being part of the conspiracy. Before these counts, the investigation was more narrowly focused on the state election code.

By expanding the charges to include conspiracy, prosecutors made it possible for the Travis County grand jury to bring charges against DeLay. Otherwise, the grand jury would have lacked jurisdiction under state laws.

The Associated Press spoke with several lawyers familiar with the case, all of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. DeLay, Republican of Texas, said yesterday that prosecutors have interviewed him. He has insisted he committed no crimes and said Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, is pursuing the case for political reasons.

The disclosure was made as congressional officials said top House Republicans were quietly considering how to respond if an indictment were issued.

House GOP rules require any member of the elected leadership to step down temporarily if indicted, and it would be up to the rank and file to select an interim replacement. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, could make a recommendation, whether choosing to elevate another member of the leadership or tapping an alternative to reduce the possibility of a struggle if DeLay were cleared and then sought to reclaim his post.

Asked what he had heard of any late developments, DeLay said yesterday, ''Not a word."

He also said he earlier ''had an interview" with prosecutors, adding, ''everybody knows that."

The 11-term congressman has served as number two in the House GOP leadership for three years, credited with maintaining iron discipline within the party and keeping Republicans in control of the chamber. He has retained the loyalty of most party members despite running into ethical problems last year. In a rare rebuke of a House leader, the Ethics Committee admonished DeLay three times for pressuring a fellow congressman, involving the Federal Aviation Administration in a political dispute, and discussing energy legislation with lobbyists at a golf outing.

The grand jury's finale coincides with a wide swath of political trouble for the GOP. Ethical questions have been raised about stock sales by the Republican leader of the Senate, Bill Frist of Tennessee, and President Bush, an uneasy ally of DeLay, faces the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

The Texas grand jury has charged that corporate donations given to Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee -- formed by DeLay -- were used to support state candidates in violation of state law. Texas law prohibits corporate money to be used to advocate the election or defeat of candidates; it is allowed only for administrative expenses.

Once DeLay helped Republicans win control of the Texas Legislature in 2002, the majority leader engineered a Republican redistricting plan that gave the state's US House delegation a 21-to-11 majority in the current Congress. The effort helped Republicans increase their House margin by five seats this year.

Three of DeLay's political associates, the PAC itself, several corporate donors, and a Texas business organization have been indicted so far -- but not DeLay himself.

On Sept. 13, the grand jury re-indicted two of the associates, Jim Ellis and John Colyandro. The new charges included the criminal conspiracy counts.

The legal sources said that if the case had remained solely under the state election code, DeLay could be indicted only in his home county, Fort Bend.

The grand jury has charged that Texans for a Republican Majority and the Texas Association of Business worked together to circumvent the election code and funnel ''massive amounts of secret corporate wealth" into campaigns, said Earle.

The conspiracy charges were brought against Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, and Colyandro, former executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority. They had previously been indicted on charges of laundering $190,000 in corporate donations.

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