WASHINGTON – Nearly 32 months after a Texas grand jury indicted him for election-law violations, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay still hasn’t gotten his day in court on one count of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
More than two years ago DeLay surrendered to a Harris County jail. Even by Texas standards, that lag is an unusually long time for a relatively minor criminal case to remain unresolved.
It does take two to two-step: Appeals have been flying from the defendants as well as from Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s office. The last significant action on the case was almost exactly one year ago, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the decisions of two lower courts to throw out the conspiracy to violate election law charge against DeLay.
“They do not want to go to trial because they don’t even have a case,” DeLay told FOXNews.com, referring to the courts and Earle. ”In the meantime, they can destroy my reputation, they can bankrupt me... this is the new politics of personal destruction. It’s no longer good enough to ruin one’s reputation.”
Dick DeGuerin, the high-powered defense attorney representing DeLay, said he doesn’t believe the hold-up is politically motivated. But he is curious why the DeLay case has been sitting in the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals for so long.
“It is a hot-potato case, and sometimes you think about that. But so was the FLDS and they didn't hesitate. It's a sticky question,” DeGuerin said, referring to the same bench's speedy management last month of the massive child custody dispute involving the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Another attorney working on the money-laundering case, which has also netted two former DeLay associates, declined to speak on the record before the appeals process was exhausted. However, he too invoked the FLDS example, citing the fact that DeLay’s motions for a speedy trial were denied.
And unlike DeGuerin, he accused the 3rd District Court of Appeals of purposely stalling legal proceedings through this November’s vote. Of the six justices on the court — four Republicans and two Democrats — only Chief Justice Ken Law, a Republican, is up for re-election this fall.
Earle is scheduled to retire this fall. His successor is likely to be his assistant Rosemary Lehmberg, who won the Democratic primary to succeed Earle. The Texas GOP deemed it pointless to put up one of its own since the only district that actually gets to vote for him includes the staunchly liberal capital city of Austin.
But Earle’s dogged pursuit of the charges in the face of several dismissals from the courts has left him open to allegations of partisanship. Earle is a popular Democrat who has held his office for 30 years. He’s also the source of Republican ire in Texas because he has the power to investigate any Texas politician regardless of district.
Repeated calls to Earle were not returned, and an official in the DA’s office with close knowledge of the investigation would not comment on speculation that the prosecution of DeLay was Earle’s retribution for the controversial DeLay-led redistricting that sealed a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature and wound up before the Supreme Court in March 2006.
“We’ll just address those in court,” said the official of the allegations that Earle had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct, citing a desire to avoid an out-of-court “tit-for-tat” with the defendants.
The official did point out that the current state of limbo was the result of two pre-trial motions brought by co-defendants Jim Ellis and John Colyandro in 2005. Prosecution of the remaining charges against the trio cannot continue until the 3rd District Court Of Appeals issues a decision on whether the charges are too broad. If a favorable ruling comes down for Ellis and Colyandro, it would likely quash the case against DeLay as well.
“We’re in a holding pattern,” the spokesman said, though he did acknowledge that the DA — whoever she or he is when the decision is handed down — would likely appeal a ruling favoring the defendants.
DeLay’s conservative backers have been floating the theory that Earle, in connection with George Soros, the billionaire liberal financier, have been in cahoots for some time to gum up the works for DeLay. But no concrete evidence can be cited that Earle and Soros are working in concert.
DeLay also accuses wealthy liberal organizations such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Soros’ Open Society Institute, which fund smaller organizations like Texans for Public Justice, for the entire legal episode. TPJ formally requested that Earle investigate DeLay’s PACs in 2003 after Republicans took charge of the Texas Legislature for the first time in years.
Earle is not unbeatable, notes DeGuerin, who faced off against the DA in 1994. At the time, he represented Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, when Earle alleged that she had misused her previous office of state treasurer. Earle eventually dropped those charges.
“He has historically gone after persons with whom he's had political disagreements,” DeGuerin said. “Yes, he’s prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans, but that's because for a long time there weren't any Republicans in Texas.”
When DeGuerin filed a motion accusing Earle of prosecutorial misconduct two years ago, DeLay promised the evidence would be publicly unveiled “when it’s timely.” More than two years later, the evidence against Earle has yet to be delivered.
Republican Cold Shoulders
As for DeLay’s backers in Washington, they have mostly disappeared in the power shift. DeLay left Congress exactly two years ago, as House Republicans began to fight for their political lives in the upcoming midterm elections. Tainted by numerous scandals, including the Jack Abramoff lobbying affair in which DeLay also played a highly visible role, a number of high-powered Republicans were tossed out of office in November 2006.
The atmosphere for Republicans hasn't improved in Washington. Outgoing Republican from Virginia Rep. Tom Davis and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel are warning that this November’s expected losses are just desserts for a party that has lost its way. Republican candidates like Chris Hackett in Pennsylvania are publicly stepping away from DeLay, who is about as radioactive these days as President Bush.
DeLay has accepted the political reality and won’t allow Republicans to be photographed with him even — if they request it — because “I know what the media will do with those pictures.”
Though confident of his eventual exoneration, DeLay is frustrated and angry at the sluggish pace of the criminal case against him, which has made him persona non grata in Washington. “I’d like for it to be done as soon as possible. At the same time, I’m not using this to slow me down one minute. I’m going to help rebuild the conservative movement,” he said. “I haven’t slowed down one bit.”
Rather than despair the environment for him and his colleagues, DeLay has one message for conservatives: Quit whining.
“It’s been 18 months since we lost the House, and now all we’re doing is talking about it — who’s to blame, pointing fingers,” DeLay said. “While we’re beating each other up the Democrats are out there kicking our butts. Stop talking about who’s to blame or what was the problem and start organizing."
DeLay insisted that he was still an effective leader of the conservative movement behind the scenes, and described a recent visit to Congress as warm and welcoming on both sides of the aisle. “Even Democrats know that [I will be exonerated] and have said so privately,” he said.