AUSTIN, Texas — Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, one of the most polarizing politicians of the Bush years, is finally getting his day in court, five years after being charged with illegally funneling corporate money to help elect Republicans to the Texas Legislature.
Jury selection begins Tuesday, but it's at neither the time nor the place that DeLay sought. The trial will be in Austin, the most Democratic city in one of the nation's most Republican states, and testimony is set to start on the eve of Election Day.
DeLay was once one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. As the No. 2 leader in the House, he earned the nickname "the Hammer" for his heavy-handed style in bringing recalcitrant members of the GOP into line for votes.
But the criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of his ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, forced DeLay to step down as majority leader and eventually to resign after representing suburban Houston for 22 years.
DeLay has been pressing for a trial for years, but appeals of pretrial rulings have repeatedly slowed down the case.
Lead defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said the "harshly drawn lines in politics today" could hamper the efforts to try DeLay, who was a lightning rod for liberal critics.
"This is a highly charged political case, and my concern is Tom DeLay will be on trial for his politics and not whether he committed a crime," DeGuerin said.
The 63-year-old DeLay is charged with two crimes: money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. If convicted of money laundering, he faces from five years to life in prison. The conspiracy charge carries a prison term of two to 20 years.
DeLay had wanted his trial moved from Democratic Travis County to his conservative home county of Fort Bend. But Senior Judge Pat Priest, who is handling the case, has ruled DeLay can get a fair trial in Austin.
DeGuerin and DeLay have said the charges were the result of a political witch hunt by Ronnie Earle, the Democratic former Travis County district attorney who originally brought the case. Travis County generally handles cases involving officials at the state Capitol.
Prosecutors declined to comment before the start of the trial. But they have said in the past that Earle, who retired in 2008, did not seek the indictment based on politics. They have pointed out that, throughout a career spanning more than 30 years, Earle prosecuted Democrats as well as Republicans.
The witnesses who have been subpoenaed will probably only heighten the trial's political overtones. On the list are current and former state lawmakers, including former Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, as well as lobbyists and political fundraisers. The list also includes former associates of DeLay with ties to Abramoff, who went to prison as part of a corruption probe that ensnared some members of George W. Bush's administration.
The Justice Department ended its federal investigation into DeLay's ties to Abramoff without filing any charges against DeLay.
Michael Diaz, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor from Miami who has followed the DeLay case, said divorcing politics from the trial will be impossible.
"The very nature of the charges implicate how politics in this country works," he said.
DeLay and two associates — Jim Ellis and John Colyandro — are accused by prosecutors of taking $190,000 in corporate money collected by a state political action committee DeLay started and illegally funneling it through the Republican National Committee in Washington to help elect GOP state legislative candidates in 2002. Under Texas law, corporate money cannot be directly used for political campaigns.
In 2002, Texas Republicans won a majority in the Texas House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War era.
Once the GOP leadership was in place, Republicans pushed through a congressional redistricting plan engineered by DeLay that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004.
Ellis and Colyandro, whose charges are less serious than DeLay's, will be tried later. A previous charge alleging that the three men had engaged in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws was dismissed.
DeGuerin insists that DeLay did nothing wrong.
"If you can look at that indictment and figure out what it says was done wrong, you are a better man than I am," DeGuerin said.
DeGuerin also defended Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who was indicted on misconduct charges arising from her time as a state treasurer. She was acquitted in 1994.
Since his indictment in 2005, DeLay has largely dropped out of public view except for a stint competing on ABC's hit show "Dancing With the Stars." He withdrew after an injury. DeLay now runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.
Philip Hilder, a Houston criminal defense attorney, said he does not believe the charges against DeLay are politically motivated.
"I think it is the responsibility of the district attorney to make sure the spirit of the finance laws are complied with, to ensure fairness in the system," said Hilder, a former federal prosecutor.
Diaz said he thinks prosecutors will have a tough time proving their case, and if politics makes its way into the trial, that will favor the defense.
"They better not try to just prosecute this case by telling (jurors), 'He's dirty with his association with Abramoff or other unsavory characters," Diaz said. "They have to do it with the evidence, and I don't think they got it."
Hilder said the facts in the case look bad for DeLay.
"The only thing I will predict is that it will be a slugfest," he said.
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