Former House majority leader Tom DeLay's bid to clear his name of money-laundering and conspiracy charges will not be decided until next month, possibly jeopardizing his attempt to regain his post when Congress reconvenes in January.
The judge in the trial of DeLay (R-Tex.) and two co-defendants decided Tuesday to withhold a ruling on their requests that he throw out the felony indictments. Attorneys for DeLay, James W. Ellis and John Colyandro -- associates who ran DeLay-created political action committees in Washington and Austin -- said the charges, which stem from the 2002 Texas legislative campaign, are without merit.
Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's lawyer, said the specific crime of conspiracy to violate the Texas Election Code was not on the books in 2002, when the alleged violation took place. He also said that sending $190,000 in corporate donations to the Republican National Committee, which subsequently donated an equivalent amount in private donations to Texas legislative candidates, was not a crime and that the crime of money laundering in Texas pertains to an act involving cash or coins and not a check, as is alleged in this case.
"No crime occurred and no crime is charged," DeGuerin said.
Travis County Assistant District Attorney Rick Reed disputed DeGuerin's argument, saying that state law has long defined conspiracy as an agreement to commit any felony and that prosecutors believe the defendants sent the corporate donations to the RNC under "a negotiated swap."
District Judge Pat Priest of San Antonio said he needs at least two weeks to study the post-hearing briefs that will be submitted, along with the voluminous briefs filed previously in the case. He said that if he upholds the charges, he does not foresee a trial beginning before Jan. 1.
Priest is a retired judge who was assigned to the case after DeLay recently challenged the impartiality of an Austin judge who had contributed to Democratic candidates. If the case proceeds, Priest still must determine the merit of two other motions filed by DeLay's attorneys. They are seeking a dismissal of the charges based on allegations that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, improperly tried to influence the grand jury that returned the indictment against the powerful Republican.
The other motion asks that the trial, if it occurs, be moved out of heavily Democratic Travis County, with liberal-leaning Austin as its county seat, to DeLay's home county of Fort Bend, a heavily Republican area southwest of Houston.
DeLay temporarily gave up his leadership role in the House when he was indicted in September and wants to resume the post as soon as possible, DeGuerin said in court. In Washington, House Republicans have said they may decide to elect a permanent replacement for DeLay if the campaign finance trial here extends into 2006.
"I understand the reasons why your clients want to get this matter resolved," Priest told DeGuerin and the other lawyers. But, he added, "I doubt very seriously we will get this case to trial before the beginning of the year."
Priest gave no indication how he would rule on the case, but he said that 24 hours before Tuesday's hearing he had "a pretty good idea . . . what I thought about this case." After hearing 31/2 hours of arguments, he said: "I don't think it will be an easy decision."
Ellis and Colyandro -- the former directors of Americans for a Republican Majority PAC and Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, respectively -- and DeLay are accused of illegally soliciting $190,000 in corporate political donations and sending the money in a check to the RNC. The committee subsequently donated $190,000 raised from individual donors to seven Republican candidates for the Texas legislature, as a way, Earle says, of circumventing the Texas election law banning direct corporate contributions to state campaigns. The 2002 election resulted in a Republican takeover of the Texas House, which subsequently pushed through a congressional redistricting plan that increased the number of Republicans elected to the U.S. House in 2004 and solidified DeLay's position as majority leader.