DeLay trial offers a window into Washington fundraising and influence-peddling

A Texas jury found Tom DeLay (R), former House majority leader, guilty of money laundering Nov. 24.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 1:44 AM

Before convicting former House majority leader Tom DeLay last week on felony charges of conspiracy and money-laundering, the Texas jury got a detailed look at the Washington rat race of corporate fundraising and influence-peddling.

It did not like what it saw.

Six men and six women from Travis County heard prosecutors and defense attorneys question 35 political veterans, including current and former senior staff at the Republican National Committee's finance arm, several consultants and lobbyists, and treasurers for several political action committees that dangled access to DeLay in exchange for $25,000 in dinner table tickets.

Experts explained how the corporate money that floods into a robust campaign is necessary and fungible. If such dollars cannot be spent in some states because of legal restrictions, they can be - and routinely are - swapped for money given by individual donors elsewhere that lack such restrictions, they said.

The jurors did not, so to speak, buy it.

And with their decision to make a former No. 2 in the House eligible for time behind bars - for making a decision his attorneys depicted as business-as-usual inside the Beltway - has come a debate over whether the jury was mostly repudiating DeLay's own actions or sending a message to Washington from the rest of America, amid tea party pique, that the time may be at hand to change its ways.

John Feehery, a lobbyist and former DeLay aide who is now a director at the public relations firm Quinn Gillespie and Associates, warned this week on his blog that the trial showed what is "common practice here in D.C. looks an awful lot like plain old corruption everywhere else in the country."

DeLay's conviction, he said, demonstrates in part that when some of the routines in Washington - including "giving campaign contributions to a political candidate with the expectation that that candidate would vote a certain way" - are put before a jury by a prosecutor with either good or bad motives, they can convincingly look like bribery, or worse.

"There is," Feehery said, "a disconnect between how Washington operates and how people think it should operate."

DeLay's attorneys agreed. "The jury was just sending a message saying it did not like money in politics," Houston lawyer Dick DeGuerin said in an interview. "We tried a logical, intellectual case to show that there was no crime," he said, but the jurors rebelled against what they regarded as a sea of corporate dollars enveloping DeLay and his bid to elect enough Republicans to take over the state legislature.

DeLay's aim, as no one disputed, was to put allies in position to skew the state's political redistricting so that additional Texas Republicans would be elected to the House. It was a brilliant stratagem that worked.

But the prosecutors spared jurors no detail of the corporate backing DeLay recruited for his effort. At one point, they treated them to a copy of a 2002 e-mail in which an official at Westar Energy outlined "a proposed budget for political contributions" specifically tied to the company's effort to obtain an exemption from Securities and Exchange Commission regulation. DeLay later supported the exemption, in a set of circumstances that contributed to a 2004 House ethics committee admonishment.

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