The state of Texas finally found a judge yesterday to preside over the criminal trial of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), but not without a new, last-minute dispute about partisan political interference.
Administrative Judge B.B. Schraub, who earlier this week removed a judge overseeing the proceedings against DeLay for alleged liberal bias, withdrew yesterday from decision making about a replacement judge after an official complaint about Schraub's links to Republicans.
Schraub passed the decision to the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Wallace B. Jefferson. But within hours, political activists in Texas complained that Jefferson has close ties to individuals and political contributors at the heart of the allegations against DeLay.
By day's end, Jefferson seemed to settle the matter by appointing a retired judge from San Antonio, Pat Priest, whose only recent political donations were three checks of $150 each to Democratic candidates for the Texas House in 2004, according to the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
The task of finding a supposedly apolitical arbiter for DeLay's trial was complicated by the fact that Texas -- like seven other states -- elects its judges in partisan elections. It also allows elected judges to make financial contributions to partisan causes, and it even permits those with business before the courts to subsidize the judges' political campaigns.
DeLay, who says that the criminal charges against him were motivated by partisan politics, filed a motion last month seeking the removal of District Judge Bob Perkins, an elected Democrat who had contributed funds in 2004 to the liberal group MoveOn.Org. Schraub agreed to do so Tuesday without giving any reason, and promised to pick a replacement.
But prosecutor Ronnie Earle, who has overseen the DeLay investigation and who opposed Perkins's removal, then filed a motion seeking Schraub's removal on grounds that he had contributed to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's election campaign.
Perry, a DeLay ally, worked closely with the majority leader in 2002 to ensure that Republicans gained control of the Texas House, a key step in the DeLay-inspired plan to redraw the Texas congressional map so that the state elected more Republicans to Congress.
Schraub's subsequent withdrawal threw the responsibility to Jefferson, whom Perry appointed as chief justice in 2004 and who shared a campaign treasurer in 2002 with Texans for a Republican Majority, the group indicted along with DeLay for allegedly funneling illegal corporate contributions into the House elections that year. Jefferson also was endorsed by the group, and one of its brochures listed him as a VIP guest at one of the group's fundraisers.
Jefferson's letter did not explain the choice of Priest. Jefferson's office staff declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the House ethics committee -- which DeLay has asked to investigate allegations that he improperly traveled overseas at the expense of lobbyists -- announced yesterday that it hired a new chief counsel, William V. O'Reilly, a former partner in the Washington office of the Jones Day law firm.
The firm's Web site states that O'Reilly previously represented the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company in antitrust litigation. R.J. Reynolds is one of DeLay's longtime financial supporters -- having given to both his election campaigns and his legal defense fund -- and recently flew DeLay to Texas on one of its corporate jets for his first court appearance.
Campaign disclosure records state that O'Reilly contributed $1,000 last year to Sen. John F. Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign, $250 to Wesley K. Clark's Democratic presidential campaign, and $250 to the Democratic National Committee.