AUSTIN, Texas – Attorneys for Tom DeLay suggested to jurors Monday that a money laundering case against the former U.S. House majority leader was the result of a prejudice against corporate donations held by the former prosecutor who originally brought the charges.
The debate over corporate donations came up as prosecutors questioned former lobbyists for several corporations, including Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Bacardi USA Inc., about money their companies gave to DeLay's Texas-based political action committee.
Prosecutors allege DeLay used the PAC to illegally funnel $190,000 in corporate funds into Texas legislative races eight years ago. Under Texas law, corporate money can't go directly to political campaigns.
DeLay, who denies wrongdoing, is charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The former Houston-area congressman faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Penny Cate, a former lobbyist for Sears, told jurors the company made a $25,000 donation to DeLay's PAC in June 2002.
Sears and Bacardi were two of eight companies charged in 2004 with making illegal donations to the PAC. Charges against Sears were dropped after it agreed to make donations to a University of Texas program studying corporations and politics. The case against Bacardi is pending.
Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's lead attorney, told jurors the agreement that settled Sears' charges included language put in by former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who brought the original case but has since retired, that called corporate donations "a threat to democracy." DeGuerin has repeatedly told jurors corporate donations are a legal part of politics but that no corporate money was sent to Texas candidates.
"Mr. Earle's philosophy is corporate money in elections is dangerous to democracy," DeGuerin said.
DeLay's attorneys have said the charges against the Republican DeLay were politically motivated by Earle, a Democrat. Prosecutors deny that.
Cate told jurors she didn't believe the donations made by Sears were illegal and that in her home state of Illinois, corporate donations can be given to candidates.
"Is the state of Texas allowed to makes its own laws with regard to what is lawful or unlawful in corporate candidate contributions?" prosecutor Holly Taylor asked Cate.
"Yes," she replied.
Testimony was to resume Tuesday, with prosecutors continuing to question Susan Lilly, a former fundraiser for DeLay's PAC.
Prosecutors allege DeLay and two associates — John Colyandro and Jim Ellis — illegally channeled the corporate donations collected by DeLay's Texas PAC through the Washington-based Republican National Committee.
Prosecutors say the money helped Republicans take control of the Texas House in 2002. That majority allowed the GOP to push through a Delay-engineered congressional redistricting plan that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004 and strengthened DeLay's political power, prosecutors said.
DeLay has been pressing for a trial since he was indicted five years ago, but the case was slowed by appeals. His defense team tried moving the trial out of Austin — the most Democratic city in one of the most Republican states.
The criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of DeLay's ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, ended his 22-year political career representing suburban Houston. The Justice Department probe into DeLay's ties to Abramoff ended without any charges filed against DeLay.
Ellis and Colyandro, who face lesser charges, will be tried later.
DeLay, whose nickname was "the Hammer" for his heavy-handed style, now runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. In 2009, he appeared on ABC's hit television show "Dancing With the Stars."