By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 8:45 PM
AUSTIN - Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, the brash Texan who helped build and tightly control a Republican majority in his chamber until resigning in 2005, was sentenced by a state judge on Monday to three years in prison for illegally plotting to funnel corporate contributions to Texas legislative candidates.
State Senior Judge Pat Priest, citing the need for those who write the laws to "be bound by them," rejected DeLay's impassioned argument that he was the victim of political persecution and was improperly accused of breaking the law for doing what "everybody was doing."
Priest said he agreed with a jury's verdict in November that DeLay had committed a felony by conspiring to launder corporate money into the state election, and ordered bailiffs to take DeLay - wearing a navy blue suit and his trademark American-flag lapel pin - to jail immediately. But he was released when DeLay's attorneys quickly posted a $10,000 bond.
Priest also sentenced DeLay to five years in prison on a separate felony conviction of money laundering, but agreed to let him serve 10 years of community service instead of jail time for that charge. Priest acknowledged that DeLay - who said he had already raised and spent $10 million on his defense - would appeal the verdict to higher courts.
But he rejected DeLay's contention that the prosecution's novel use of a money-laundering statute - meant to target bank robbers, drug dealers and criminal fraud - was unjust.
Its use was justified, Priest said, because the crime for which DeLay was convicted was itself novel. DeLay was accused of approving the transfer of $190,000 in corporate funds to the Republican National Committee's coffers in Washington and a return of the same amount in checks to state candidates.
A prison term represents a substantial fall from grace for DeLay, who from 2002 to 2005 was effectively the third most powerful politician in Washington and the gatekeeper for all House legislation. As House majority leader, he became notorious for pursuing the interests of his party and its donors so aggressively and successfully that he earned a nickname as "The Hammer."
DeLay also probably made as many enemies as he did friends, causing some party colleagues - such as current House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) - to openly shun any mimicry of his rigid, demanding style. One of DeLay's most controversial efforts, known as his "K Street Project," involved pressuring trade associations to donate only to Republicans, despite their stated preference to give to both parties.
Some analysts have said the ethics cloud that surrounded DeLay contributed to the Democrats' capture of the House in 2006.
Priest delivered his sentence immediately after hearing from prosecutors and the defense Monday.
DeLay and his lead attorney, Richard DeGuerin, asked for a sentence of probation and community service, but they may have undercut their plea by declining to show any contrition, a factor that normally weighs in a judge's sentencing deliberations.
"I can't be remorseful for something I don't think I did," said DeLay, who had been silent in front of the jury even while he insisted on his innocence during numerous press conferences outside the courtroom.
Lead prosecutor Gary Cobb repeatedly called attention to DeLay's defiance, asking the judge at one point if refusing to accept responsibility could properly be called a "conservative value."
"Conservative values . . . are supposed to include obeying the laws of the state and taking personal responsibility," Cobb said. If DeLay received only probation, Cobb warned the judge, he would "wear that probation" like Jesus and call himself a martyr.
A colleague, prosecutor Steve Brand, separately claimed at the hearing that probation would not only send the wrong message to other members of Congress, but would signal to working-class citizens that DeLay was treated lightly just because he wore "a suit and a tie." He said that DeLay's repeated claims in a recent memoir that he did nothing improper were "the equivalent of a 'screw you' to the system."
Brand said DeLay "needs to go to prison . . . and he needs to go today," and Cobb suggested a 10-year prison term would be appropriate.
DeLay told Priest, as he has claimed since his indictment in 2005, that the case was brought by the Travis County prosecutor's office because it disliked his "politics."
He acknowledged being arrogant - "Texas cocky" is the description that DeLay said he preferred - but added, "I never intended to break the law; I have always played within the rules and even the spirit of the laws; and even if I didn't, I am not stupid. Everything I did was covered by accountants and lawyers telling me what I needed to do to stay within the law."
DeLay was indicted by Travis County's elected district attorney, a Democrat, after activists in Texas, including some affiliated with the Democratic Party, uncovered evidence of the money transfers to and from Washington.
Texas has long barred the use of corporate funds in its state elections, as do 21 other states.
DeLay's attorneys claimed during the trial that, because the funds were sent to one account in Washington and replenished from a different account, the transfers did not meet the criminal definition of money laundering. But higher state courts have sided with Priest's decision to allow the charges, and the jurors decided that DeLay had conspired with two associates - now awaiting a separate trial - to subvert the law.
At one point, the hearing - which was organized to hear evidence of other "bad acts" by DeLay, in addition to the sentencing recommendations - appeared headed for discussion of DeLay's extensive ties to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, with former DeLay and Abramoff aide Michael Scanlon appearing briefly in the hallway outside the courtroom.
Scanlon was subpoenaed to offer testimony about a golf trip DeLay had taken with Abramoff to Scotland and London in 2000, where some of his expenses were covered by lobbyists. But DeGuerin argued to Priest that the August dismissal of federal charges against DeLay made such issues moot.
Priest also cut short some testimony by a former plastics manufacturer, Peter Cloeren, about past election donation irregularities that Cloeren says involved DeLay. The judge accepted evidence offered by DeGuerin that the Federal Election Commission had declined to hold DeLay responsible.
Former House speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the sole witness presented Monday on DeLay's behalf, spoke about his 20-year friendship with DeLay and called him "honorable in the things he was trying to do" for his constituency and the country. He also spoke about DeLay's work with orphans and foster children in Texas, and his acquisition of highway funds and tax breaks for Texans.
"Tom, whenever he did anything, he jumped into it full-bore," Hastert said.