Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) went to court in his home state today to seek dismissal of the conspiracy and money laundering charges against him, but the judge in the case declined to issue an immediate ruling.
Senior Judge Pat Priest, who was recently appointed to preside over the case, did not specify when he would rule on the motion to dismiss and said that if a trial were to go ahead, it would not start before the end of the year. The statement came as a setback to DeLay's hopes of quickly regaining his post in the GOP leadership.
In a hearing in Austin, Priest said he wanted to read written responses from both sides before ruling on the defense motion to dismiss the case.
DeLay, 58, appeared in Travis County Criminal District Court before Priest, who was appointed to judge the case after DeLay's attorneys objected to the original district judge assigned to it. The defense said the first judge, Bob Perkins, should recuse himself because of his political contributions to Democratic candidates and causes, donations that totaled more than $5,000 over five years. Like Perkins, Priest, 63, is a Democrat, but his political contributions have been much smaller -- a total of $450 last year to three Democratic candidates for the state legislature.
DeLay's lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, argued today that the case should be thrown out in part because conspiracy did not exist in 2002 as a crime under the Texas election code. A prosecutor, Rick Reed, disputed that, contending that state law has long defined conspiracy as an agreement to commit any felony, the Associated Press reported.
It was the first time that DeLay has appeared before Priest and the first time he has been in court with his co-defendants in the case: John D. Colyandro, former director of a DeLay political action committee, and James W. Ellis, a fundraiser for the lawmaker.
If the judge does not agree to dismiss the charges, DeLay's defense team wants the trial moved from Austin, a Democratic bastion in a largely Republican state, to DeLay's home county of Fort Bend in the Houston area. Priest said he would not hear arguments on moving the trial before he rules on the motion to dismiss.
The prosecutor in the case, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, has objected to the proposed change of venue, arguing in court filings that DeLay would receive a fair trial in Travis County.
If the trial goes ahead, DeLay wants it to be a speedy one. His lead attorney said Monday that he wanted a trial date in early December in hopes that DeLay could be quickly cleared, possibly allowing him to regain his House leadership post in January when lawmakers return from their holiday recess. Priest's comments in court today appeared to dash those hopes.
DeLay has sought dismissal of the charges on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct and a legal technicality. His attorneys have argued that Earle improperly sought an additional grand jury indictment against DeLay on a money laundering charge after realizing that the original indictment was faulty. The defense lawyers said the conspiracy charge in the first indictment did not apply to Texas election law in 2002 at the time of the alleged offense.
Under House GOP rules, DeLay had to step down as majority leader when he was indicted on the felony conspiracy charge in September.
He lashed out at Earle, a Democrat, at the time of the indictment, calling him a "partisan fanatic" who was conducting a "vengeful investigation" in retaliation for DeLay's political successes in helping to elect Republican candidates in Texas.
Earle responded that "being called vindictive and partisan by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a frog."
Nicknamed "The Hammer," DeLay earned a reputation for punishing political opponents and aggressively enforcing Republican Party discipline in House votes.
In late September, DeLay's lawyers tried unsuccessfully to head off felony charges -- and thus preserve his leadership post -- by signaling that their client might plead guilty to a misdemeanor in the case, Washington Post staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith reported earlier this month. Instead, Earle proceeded with the indictment after a meeting in which DeLay made what the prosecutor considered a seriously damaging admission about the fundraising activity under investigation.
At the heart of the case is the 2002 transfer of $190,000 in mostly corporate contributions from DeLay's Texas political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, to the Washington headquarters of the Republican National Committee, then back to Texas to help fund the campaigns of seven GOP candidates for the state legislature.
Texas law prohibits the use of corporate contributions in state legislative elections.
The funding helped DeLay achieve his goal of wresting control of the Texas House so that the GOP could direct the redrawing of the state's congressional districts and, as a result, increase the party's majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2004 elections.