HOUSTON – Jurors at the money laundering trial of ex-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay heard a recording Wednesday in which DeLay acknowledged he knew beforehand about a money swap authorities allege was actually a scheme to illegally funnel corporate donations to Texas GOP candidates.
But afterward, DeLay told reporters he misspoke to prosecutors during the August 2005 interview and actually didn't know about the transaction until after it had happened.
In the audio interview, DeLay repeatedly said the money swap was legal, common practice and done by both Republicans and Democrats.
Prosecutors allege DeLay and two associates — John Colyandro and Jim Ellis — illegally channeled $190,000 in corporate donations collected by DeLay's Texas political action committee through the Washington-based Republican National Committee. Under Texas law, corporate money can't go directly to political campaigns.
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, who has denied wrongdoing, is charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
In the 95-minute interview he gave to prosecutors with the Travis County District Attorney's Office before being indicted, DeLay said that Ellis told him "he was going to take $190,000" and exchange it for a similar amount with the Republican National Committee, or RNC. The corporate funds would be exchanged for money collected from individual donations, the only type of funds that can legally go to Texas candidates, and the RNC would then send this money to Texas candidates, DeLay said.
"Did (Ellis) indicate why he was telling you about that?" prosecutor Rick Reed asked.
"I think because it was — it's such a large amount of money, he wanted to make sure that — that I knew it was — that it was happening," DeLay said.
After the interview was played, DeLay said he failed to be clear when he talked to prosecutors.
"Or the way I like to put it, Texas vernacular ... inarticulate and clumsy," he said. "Even if I knew about the deal, the deal is legal. So what's the conspiracy?"
In the interview, DeLay said Ellis told him the transaction was legal. But DeLay said he didn't seek more legal advice on the matter because it was the PAC's decision. Throughout the trial, DeLay's attorneys have told jurors the ex-lawmaker didn't handle the day-to-day operations of the PAC.
In the interview, DeLay did not say when he talked with Ellis. Terry Nelson, a former RNC official, testified last week that Ellis approached him about the money swap in August or September 2002 and that Ellis wanted the funds to go to seven Texas candidates.
The trial resumes on Monday because of the Veteran's Day holiday on Thursday. The trial is also off on Fridays.
The taped interview was the most dramatic evidence prosecutors have so far presented in seven days of testimony in a case that's been mainly circumstantial.
Prosecutors have called nearly 30 witnesses and presented volumes of e-mails and other documents.
But before the taped interview, no witness or document had directly tied DeLay to the alleged scheme.
Prosecutors have implied DeLay was the driving force behind the PAC. DeLay's attorneys have stressed to jurors that DeLay was only a famous name the PAC used to raise money and the money swap conducted by the PAC was legal and didn't result in any corporate money going to Texas candidates. DeLay's attorneys have said the charges against him were politically motivated, which prosecutors deny.
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."