Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) appeared in court for the first time Friday to answer the money-laundering and conspiracy charges against him, but the presiding judge quickly adjourned the proceedings after DeLay's attorneys accused him of bias and asked him to withdraw.
DeLay did not speak during the brief session, in which the lawyers posted a bond for his appearance and explained the grounds for alleging that the judge's record of campaign contributions to Democrats and liberal organizations demonstrated "a personal bias" against DeLay.
But afterward DeLay told reporters on the nearby grounds of the Texas Capitol that he committed no wrongdoing and expects to be exonerated. Referring to the 2002 state election campaign at the center of the probe that gave rise to two indictments against him, DeLay said: "I have been charged for defeating Democrats. I have been charged for advancing the Republican agenda."
District Judge Bob Perkins, an elected Democrat in largely Democratic Travis County, expressed concern in court that allegations of bias are arising here whenever a Republican is on trial. But he said the issue of who presides over DeLay's trial should be decided by the region's chief administrative judge, an appointed Republican.
The session marked a shift to the courts of a local prosecutor's two-year probe of actions taken by DeLay and his political associates before the historic 2002 state election, when Republicans gained control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years.
DeLay's staff disclosed that he flew to Houston on Thursday morning on a corporate jet owned by R.J. Reynolds, a longtime contributor that has flown him to Puerto Rico and other destinations; they said the jet was "used in compliance with regulations." The company, which has also given $17,000 to DeLay's legal defense fund, did not have a comment Friday.
DeLay was indicted on Sept. 28 and Oct. 3 on charges of conspiring to inject illegal corporate funds into that 2002 campaign, and of laundering some of those funds through an arm of the Republican Party in Washington to conceal their corporate origin.
DeLay and his attorneys have chosen to take a highly combative public stance against the charges, depicting them as the fruits of a partisan campaign to undermine his influence and besmirch the Republican Party.
But the indictments have already taken a toll on his political standing: A tracking poll in the Houston area, including his congressional district, by SurveyUSA on Oct. 10 for the first time showed that a plurality now supports his resignation from Congress. Also, a recent nationwide tracking poll by National Journal's Hotline similarly showed that after the indictments, DeLay not only became better known but also more disliked, attracting a 44 percent unfavorable rating and a 15 percent favorable rating.
At the same time, perhaps driven by potential political peril, fundraising for his reelection campaign in the first quarter of this year was twice what it was in 2003, the last political off year, while receipts for his leadership political action committee are down 26 percent for the comparable period in 2003.
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said the poll taken in DeLay's district was flawed and added: "The most important poll is taken on Election Day, and with Mr. DeLay's hard-working approach to representing his constituents on the issues they care about . . . he will be reelected to Congress again next year. Substance will beat the Democrats' spin every time."
DeLay has said he is eager for a quick trial to prove his innocence. But many lawyers here predict that the two principal motions filed by his legal team this week -- to force Perkins's withdrawal as judge and move the trial elsewhere in Texas, away from this Democratic bastion -- may put it on a slower track.
The lead prosecutor overseeing the probe, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, is fighting both requests. In a written statement, Earle said, "the logic behind the defendant's motion to recuse Judge Perkins would mean that no criminal defendant could be tried in a court presided over by a judge who did not belong to the defendant's political party." He added in the courtroom corridor Friday: "We don't live in a country where political party determines the measure of justice."
DeLay's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, claimed to the contrary that Perkins's bias was evident in his contribution of $5,485 to Democratic campaigns since 2000, including a $200 donation in September 2004 to MoveOn.org, and $400 to the Democratic National Committee in October last year. He said the former group had used anti-DeLay messages to solicit funds.
Perkins said his contribution to MoveOn.org was intended to benefit Democrat John F. Kerry's presidential campaign. The judge who will decide the jurisdictional matter, B.B. Schraub, has made donations to national and local Republican candidates, according to public records.
Research database editor Derek Willis in Washington contributed to this report.