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Justice Department Clears Tom Delay Of Corruption

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

One chapter in a political scandal that shook Washington has ended. The Justice Department has closed a six year investigation of former House Majority Leader Tom Delay's interactions with lobbyist Jack Abramoff without bringing criminal charges. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on why investigators did not reach their target.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Texas Republican Tom DeLay�left Congress in 2006, shortly after two of his aides pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. They acknowledged taking lavish meals and golf trips�from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And prosecutors' attention soon turned to the man nick-named the Hammer.

Mr. TOM DELAY (Former Republican Representative, Texas): I insisted that I had done nothing wrong and that I had broken no laws. While I will never understand why it took so long for the Justice Department to conclude that I was innocent, I am nevertheless pleased that they have made their determination.

JOHNSON: On Monday, a victorious DeLay brushed aside allegations that had dogged him for six years - accepting junkets paid for by lobbyists who wanted favors, taking fancy meals and wine, and consulting fees paid to his wife.

The Justice Department dug through DeLay's computers and interviewed his former staff members, but they couldn't build a criminal case. Melanie Sloan runs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.�

Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics): Mr. Abramoff paid for Mr. DeLay to take very fancy and expensive trips to Scotland and England. And it is astonishing that Mr. DeLay will walk away scot-free for all of that conduct.

JOHNSON: In all, the Justice Department says 18 people have been convicted of crimes�related to the Abramoff scandal. Most were low level congressional aides. Former prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg explains the challenges for the government.

Mr. PETER ZEIDENBERG (Attorney): They're in a grey area because they are putting in a criminal context what some would say was simply very aggressive lobbying.

JOHNSON: Zeidenberg says there weren't envelopes filled with cash or smoking-gun emails that lead to easy criminal prosecutions. Instead, he says, the DeLay investigation was more like Washington business as usual.

Mr. ZEIDENBERG: They're cases being made on golf games, sporting events, concerts, dinners, drinks. That's sort of what many thought that lobbyists did.

JOHNSON: The unit responsible for investigating corruption has had its own troubles.�Lawyers mishandled another case and were themselves accused of misconduct. The unit ran without a leader for months. And relying on the word of Abramoff, a convicted felon, was too risky for prosecutors.

So the government looked hard at Ed Buckham. He's DeLay's former chief of staff. Buckham accepted millions of dollars from Abramoff's lobbying clients, and he used some of that money to hire Tom DeLay's wife on a $3,000 a month retainer. But he was never charged with wrong-doing either.

In a call with reporters Monday, DeLay, a veteran of the TV show "Dancing with the Stars," borrowed a phrase to describe the current political climate.

Mr. DELAY: The new politics is no longer good enough to beat you on policy. They have to completely drown you and put you in prison and destroy your family and your reputation and your finances, and then dance on your grave.

JOHNSON: DeLay is not completely free of the legal system. He's due in a Texas courtroom next week for hearings on a state money laundering case that's now five years old.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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