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Charges against DeLay raise anew the issue of money in politics

WASHINGTON—The indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, who stepped down as House Republican leader this week, renews attention to the crossroads where money and politics intersect and highlights anew the ability of politicians to circumvent campaign-finance laws.

A jury ultimately will have to determine whether DeLay broke Texas law. But the strategy employed by a political group that DeLay founded appeared to stretch the limits of how political money is channeled through paths of least resistance.

Restricting the flow of money into politics has always been a Sisyphean task. For every loophole closed, myriad others open. After Congress passed what was considered a tough federal law restricting political money—the McCain-Feingold bill of 2002—the elections of 2004 became the most expensive on record.

The DeLay case, however, puts the cross hairs on a high-profile national political figure and his money connections. Democrats already were trying to discredit some Republicans on Thursday by drawing attention to their money links to DeLay. At least one Republican congressman said he would return money obtained from a DeLay political organization. And watchdog groups and advocates of tough campaign-finance laws predicted the indictment would serve as a warning to fundraisers and donors.

"It's going to have a rather profound effect on some of the efforts to skirt the letter of the law," said Tom Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution and longtime advocate of stricter regulations on campaign money. "I think you're going to get skittish corporations worried about their public image, their standing with their shareholders and, frankly, their legal liabilities."

DeLay is accused of participating in a conspiracy with two formerly indicted aides to funnel corporate donations to state political candidates through the Republican National Committee. It's illegal in Texas for corporations to donate to candidates seeking state office.

The indictment accuses DeLay of using Texans for a Republican Majority, a political organization he helped found, to collect corporate money and then instruct the Republican National Committee to distribute it to specific state candidates.

DeLay declared himself innocent on Wednesday and accused the Democratic Texas prosecutor who brought the charges, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, of being a "partisan fanatic" mounting a "vengeful investigation."

The charge against DeLay revives public attention to campaign finance, which had waned since the days of congressional debate over McCain-Feingold, and illustrates the difficulty of regulating campaign financing, short of making it illegal altogether. McCain-Feingold eliminated contributions to political parties of unregulated money from corporations, wealthy donors and labor unions.

In its wake, the 2004 presidential campaign saw an explosion of independent groups that legally raised record amounts of unregulated money and spent it on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts, essentially replacing the parties as the money machines of politics.

"Anyone who does not understand that money is still completely fungible, and that you can essentially raise and spend what you need one way or the other, does not understand campaign finance," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has written extensively on the role of money in campaigns.

Already, members of the House of Representatives are pushing a law that would create a loophole in the McCain-Feingold law for Internet fundraising. And the Supreme Court has agreed to review a Vermont law that placed campaign-spending limits on state politicians.

Yet even if money continues to course through politics relatively undisturbed, DeLay's indictment is already affecting his political organizations.

Rep. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., said he would return $15,000 he received from DeLay's political action committee, ARMPAC, which is unrelated to the Texas political group.

"ARMPAC, which has contributed to my campaign, is not under investigation," Bradley said in a statement to the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper. "However, to remove any questions that may arise about his contributions, I will be returning these funds from his federal PAC."

ARMPAC and DeLay's candidate committee have distributed more than $5.4 million since 1989 to candidates and political organizations, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. So far this year, ARMPAC has contributed $240,700 to 26 Republican House members, the center reported.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pounced on the data Thursday, sending out a flurry of e-mails to news organizations noting Republicans who had received DeLay's money.

"Tom DeLay's indictment was only one part of a system of pay-to-play and lobbyist-driven legislating that he put into place. Until that system is dismantled ... Congress will not address the challenges and concerns facing families across our nation," said Bill Burton, the DCCC spokesman.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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