By Robert Barnes and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 12:09 AM
Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, the Texan architect of Republican power in Congress, was convicted Wednesday of illegally plotting to funnel corporate contributions to home-state legislative candidates in 2002.
A jury in Austin found DeLay guilty of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Punishment for the first ranges from five years to life in prison, but the former congressman from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land could receive probation.
DeLay will remain free until he is sentenced on Dec. 20.
"This case is a message from the people of the state of Texas that they want - and expect - honesty and ethics in their public officials," said Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. "All people have to abide by the law."
Reporters in the courtroom described DeLay as stunned by the verdict, which came after 19 hours of deliberation.
"This is an abuse of power," the former congressman said outside the courtroom. "It's a miscarriage of justice, and I still maintain that I am innocent. The criminalization of politics undermines our very system, and I am very disappointed in the outcome."
The conviction follows years of investigation of DeLay, 63, who came to symbolize the intersection of money and politics in Washington. He made a mission of solidifying the Republican majority in Congress, and his ability to raise campaign cash was part of his power and eventual downfall.
For a time, DeLay was the Republicans' chief vote counter and patronage dispenser, and he earned his nickname, "The Hammer," for the dictatorial style with which he commanded House Republicans - and tormented President Bill Clinton and Democrats.
Over three weeks, prosecutors presented more than 30 witnesses and volumes of documents todescribe a campaign-finance scheme that benefited Texas legislative candidates but was aimed at cementing GOP power in Congress.
They said a political action committee that DeLay started in Texas solicited $190,000 from corporate interests and sent it to an arm of the Republican National Committee. They said that group then distributed the money to seven legislative candidates in an effort to skirt Texas law, which forbids corporate contributions to political campaigns.
Prosecutors said that the money helped the GOP win control of the Texas House and that the majority then pushed through a DeLay-organized congressional redistricting plan that sent more Republicans to Congress.
"There is nothing wrong with Republicans trying to dominate the political world," prosecutor Beverly Mathews told jurors when the trial opened. "But the means to achieve that gain must be lawful."
DeLay's attorney, noted Texas lawyer Dick DeGuerin, denied that his client had conspired with associates Jim Ellis and John Colyandro to subvert Texas law. He acknowledged that the same amount of money DeLay sent to Washington came back to Texas, but he said the money from the RNC group was from individual contributors, which is legal under state law.
"It's not the same money," DeGuerin told jurors in opening arguments. "No money was laundered."
DeGuerin also called Wednesday's verdict "a terrible miscarriage of justice" and vowed to appeal.
"To say I'm shocked is an understatement," he said.
With characteristic bravado, DeLay expressed confidence throughout the trial that he would be exonerated, and he suggested that his victory would open the door to a more active role in federal politics after spending the past four years cooling his heels as a Republican consultant and an informal adviser to tea party activists.
DeLay, who had an extermination business before he was elected to Congress, was back in the national limelight in 2009 as a contestant on the ABC hit television show "Dancing With the Stars."
He has always said that the charges against him were politically motivated, a vendetta on the part of former Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle. But a statement to Earle in which DeLay said he had known about and sanctioned the money swap was damaging.
The former congressman later said he misspoke, telling reporters that "even if I knew about the deal, the deal is legal. So what's the conspiracy?"
Three years ago, DeLay and his attorneys briefly considered a plea bargain because of his statement. But he decided instead to hang tough.
Lead prosecutor Gary Cobb said Wednesday that the jury had acted without a political agenda, and so had his office.
"We thought the citizens of Travis County would see this case for what it was: a corrupt politician who was caught violating the laws of the state," Cobb said.
Five years ago, DeLay's political career began to unravel with disclosure of the details of his money-raising operation and his extensive connections to Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The lobbyist was eventually convicted on conspiracy, mail fraud and tax charges. Those disclosures helped undo the Republican majority in the 2006 midterm elections.
Abramoff notably paid for DeLay's airfare to London and Scotland in 2000 for a golfing trip, while DeLay's former chief of staff - another lobbyist who was handsomely compensated by Abramoff - paid for some of the former congressman's expenses on that trip.
In August, after a six-year investigation, the Justice Department informed DeLay's attorneys that he would not be indicted for his long association with Abramoff, who DeLay reiterated was still "a friend of mine." That investigation had already produced guilty pleas to federal charges by DeLay's former deputy chief of staff and one of his close aides.