AUSTIN, Texas – A judge denied former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's request Wednesday to have his money laundering trial moved from Austin, which DeLay calls a liberal bastion where he alleges a rogue prosecutor crusaded against him.
Senior Judge Pat Priest ruled that appropriate safeguards could be taken to give the Republican a fair trial in Democratic-leaning Travis County. Priest set a trial date for Oct. 26.
"I hope I can get a fair trial here. We'll find out," DeLay said. "We're ready."
The former congressman was indicted in 2005 on charges that he illegally sent $190,000 in corporate money through the Republican National Committee to help elect GOP Texas legislative candidates in 2002. DeLay said he has done nothing wrong and that a trial will prove it.
If convicted of money laundering, DeLay could face between five years to life in prison, though lawyers could ask for probation.
District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said she was pleased the judge heard arguments about a change of venue and decided a fair trial could be held in Travis County. She said the trial would likely take less than a month, and include "some bank records and looking at some numbers, but also a lot of testimony."
DeLay wanted the trial moved to his conservative home county of Fort Bend.
A Republican pollster who tested public opinion on DeLay as recently as this week testified for the defense Wednesday, saying a large percentage of those polled in Travis County knew who DeLay was and had a negative impression of him. Pollster Marc DelSignore also said a big chunk of voters questioned believed DeLay was guilty of a crime.
"I think the poll is very accurate, so that's why we're so concerned," said DeLay's attorney, Dick DeGuerin.
DeGuerin presented news articles during Wednesday's hearing about DeLay from the Austin American-Statesman newspaper and its website. He also called lawyers who have been involved in many jury trials who said they didn't think DeLay could get a fair trial in the county.
Prosecutors disputed the poll numbers, and although they acknowledged the county was heavily Democratic, they said it wasn't anti-Republican. They also suggested that DeLay's name recognition in Austin could be because of his stint last year on the television show "Dancing With the Stars."
"His visibility is up there," media buyer Monica Davis testified, referring to DeLay's dance gig. Davis completed a news monitoring study for prosecutors that showed the percentage of news stories on DeLay in the Austin market peaked in 2005, the year he was indicted, and has been lower since then.
Priest had already ruled that DeLay would be tried before his co-defendants, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, who now face lesser charges.
Along with criticizing Travis County as liberal and thus unfair to DeLay, the defense team also attacked its former district attorney, Democrat Ronnie Earle, who they say sought politically motivated indictments. On Tuesday, in a secret hearing purportedly about grand jury proceedings, DeGuerin got his chance to question Earle.
Unlike other witnesses, Earle came and went through private courtroom entrances, out of sight of reporters and other members of the public. Attorneys and others were banned by the judge from discussing the closed-door session. On Tuesday, prosecutor Holly Taylor said Earle did not seek indictments based on politics and prosecuted Democrats as well as Republicans.
Priest ruled against DeLay's defense team on the allegation of prosecutorial misconduct.
DeLay, 63, has been pressing for a trial for five years while pretrial appeals have slowed down the case. He served in Congress for more than two decades representing a suburban Houston area. The state charges cost him his leadership post, and he resigned from Congress in 2006.