Grand jury investigates record destruction

May 23, 2003 at 12:54 PM
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AUSTIN, Texas, May 23 (UPI) -- A Texas grand jury is investigating the destruction of records by state police who searched for 51 House Democrats after they staged a boycott to kill a Republican-backed redistricting bill.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle acknowledged late Thursday that a grand jury is gathering information on the destruction of the records by Texas Department of Public Safety. Democrats have said the DPS improperly sought federal help in tracking down the Democrats who were holed up in an Ardmore, Okla., motel.

"We are currently examining the circumstances surrounding the destruction of those records," Earle said in a statement. "The questions include what records were destroyed, under what authority, and why the records were destroyed so quickly. The DPS is cooperating."

A DPS supervisor ordered all records of the search destroyed May 14, a day before the Democrats returned after a four-day boycott.

At least one DPS supervisor testified Thursday before the grand jury, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Several other high-ranking DPS officials have been subpoenaed to appear before the jury, according to the newspaper's sources. Proceedings of a grand jury are secret.

The DPS says the records were destroyed because of a federal regulation that prohibits them from keeping intelligence information that is not related to criminal activity.

The four-day holdout by the Democrats prevented Republican leaders of the House from taking any action on the redistricting bill or any other measures because they lacked a quorum to do business.

Democrats have charged that U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was behind the redistricting bill that could have sent at least four more Republicans to Congress from Texas. The focus of the investigations is contacts the DPS made with a federal agency to find the missing lawmakers.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, ordered the DPS to find the Democrats when they failed to show up May 12. The maverick lawmakers were located later that day in Oklahoma, out of the reach of Texas state troopers. They returned to the House on May 16 after the redistricting bill had died.

The DPS contacted an agency of the federal Homeland Security Department that tracks aircraft to find the plane of one of the Democrats. Several Democrat members of Congress have charged that this was an abuse of a federal agency for partisan political purposes.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has acknowledged that an

investigation was under way.

DeLay acknowledged to Texas reporters in Washington on Thursday that his staff asked the Federal Aviation Administration find the plane of state Rep. Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, but he said it was public information that any citizen could access. He said the details were given to Craddick.

Earlier DeLay said he asked the Department of Justice what role a federal law enforcement agency could play in finding the missing legislators. He said he also made the request on behalf of Craddick, who was trying to find the Democrats after they failed to show up on May 12.

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