AUSTIN, Texas – Embattled Rep. Tom DeLay will move a step closer this week to resolving felony charges against him, but the appeals court hearing may remind voters about his legal troubles at a time when he is trying to win re-election to Congress.
Prosecutors on Wednesday will try to convince the 3rd Court of Appeals to restore the criminal conspiracy and money laundering charges against DeLay that cost him his post as House majority leader last fall. DeLay also has one other money laundering count against him.
State district Judge Pat Priest dismissed the conspiracy part of the charges, saying the conspiracy law DeLay allegedly violated didn't exist at the time of the alleged offenses. Prosecutors say that it did. Both sides will argue their cases before the court Wednesday; DeLay will not attend.
Richard Murray, director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston, said the prosecutors' appeal helps "drag this case out and the congressman really doesn't need that."
"Tom DeLay needs this case to move forward to a favorable resolution before November," Murray said. "Every time he's mentioned in the press, it's 'indicted, indicted, indicted' and that's corrosive."
DeLay faces former Rep. Nick Lampson in the Nov. 7 general election. It's the first time in years he's faced a serious contender since voters in his Houston-area district sent him to Congress in 1984.
Lampson, a well-funded Democrat, was ousted from office two years ago after congressional voting districts were redrawn to favor Republican candidates.
DeLay designed the voting map and his charges stem from a campaign finance scheme that helped the GOP gain control over the Texas Legislature, which in turn adopted the map and helped Republicans tighten their grip on Congress in 2004.
Prosecutors allege that DeLay and two associates funneled $190,000 in restricted corporate money to seven state Republican legislative candidates in 2002. The scheme allowed them to circumvent Texas law prohibiting spending corporate money in campaigns, prosecutors allege.
The Texas redistricting map is now at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case, in which plaintiffs argue the new districts should be overturned because they are overly partisan.
DeLay also was admonished by the House ethics committee for asking a federal agency to help track aircraft used by Texas Democrats in their flight from the state to avoid a legislative vote on the redistricting map in 2003.
Still, almost six months after DeLay was indicted, his criminal trial remains on hold. Priest, a semi-retired district judge, has said he won't move forward with a trial while an appeal is pending. A ruling isn't likely for at least a month.
Attorney Dick DeGuerin said he expects an eventual acquittal, but blames DeLay's misfortunes on the prolonged legal proceedings.
"How can it damage him more?" DeGuerin asked.
DeLay's legal team had pushed for a speedy trial last year, hoping to dispense with the charges in time for DeLay to regain his seat as majority leader. Instead, DeLay's colleagues chose Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as his replacement.
Lampson campaign manager Mike Malaise said the hearing this week points again to "all the ethical problems surrounding Tom DeLay."
"This one just kinda adds to the overall picture of Tom DeLay as someone who's been doing for himself in Washington rather than doing for the people of southeast Texas," he said.