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DeLay indictment was overdue <br> Repeated ethics questions of powerful Republican leader set tone long ago

Indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is hardly surprising -- though not, as the Republican's apologists insist, because the prosecutor in charge is a Democrat. This is about DeLay and nobody else.

The former exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, has repeatedly shown himself to be utterly bereft of ethics; he is the living incarnation of Vince Lombardi's cynical dictum that winning is the "only thing."

Last year, the bipartisan House Ethics Committee rebuked the party leader three times, for actions such as offering to endorse the son of another Republican if the colleague voted for a Medicare prescription bill and for using a federal agency to locate missing Texas state lawmakers as part of a political fight. The committee also cited him in 1999.

Ignoring long-standing practice -- and perhaps the Constitution -- DeLay pushed the Texas Legislature to scrap the congressional redistricting that followed the 2000 census and do the job again, this time with the Legislature's new Republican majority in charge. The U.S. Supreme Court later ordered lower courts to look closely at the matter.

The charge announced Wednesday accuses DeLay and two associates of a criminal conspiracy to violate state campaign finance laws outlawing corporate contributions. Criminal conspiracy is a state felony punishable by six months to two years in a state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. The potential two-year sentence forces DeLay to step down under House Republican rules.

It may not sound like much, but if Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle can prove that DeLay knowingly violated the law, it will be politically hazardous for Republicans to continue supporting him as a leader.

Not that they haven't tried. As Earle's investigation began to focus on their unethical leader, Republicans changed procedural rules that would have required DeLay to step down if he were indicted. An avalanche of criticism followed, and Republicans repealed the change. On Wednesday, DeLay temporarily stepped aside.

His fellow Texan, President Bush, has a lot at stake here as well, saying Wednesday what all presidents say when an ally gets in trouble: Let the legal process work. But with Bush's handling of the Iraq War and the mess from two hurricanes already pulling down the president's poll numbers, this won't help. Post-indictment, Bush's spokesman called DeLay an ally and someone the president has worked closely with. What looked 10 months ago like a Bush-DeLay Republican legislative sweep on their issues has turned into a gridlocked mess.

The sound you hear is that of chickens coming home to roost.

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