AUSTIN, Texas – Prosecutors in Tom DeLay's money laundering trial rested their case against the former U.S. House majority leader Wednesday, as DeLay's team insisted the state hasn't proven he engaged in criminal activity.
But as DeLay's attorneys began presenting their defense, testimony from one witness cast some doubt on claims DeLay has made about how he first learned about the money swap at the center of the trial.
Prosecutors called 33 witnesses and presented volumes of e-mails and other documents in their efforts to prove allegations DeLay's political action committee illegally channeled $190,000 in corporate donations into Texas legislative races in 2002 through a money swap.
DeLay and his attorneys say no corporate money went to Texas candidates, the money swap was legal and the ex-lawmaker had little involvement in how the PAC was run.
DeLay, a once powerful but polarizing Texas congressman, has long denied any wrongdoing. He faces charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering and could face up to life in prison if convicted.
During 10 days of testimony over nearly three weeks, the most dramatic piece of evidence has been an audio interview in which DeLay says he knew beforehand about the money swap. DeLay says he misspoke in the interview with prosecutors and only found out about the transaction after it happened.
Most of the evidence has been circumstantial and hasn't directly tied DeLay to the alleged scheme.
DeLay and two associates — John Colyandro and Jim Ellis — are accused of illegally channeling corporate donations collected by DeLay's PAC in Texas through an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee. The money went to seven Texas House candidates in 2002.
Prosecutors allege the money helped Republicans take control of the Texas House. That enabled the GOP majority 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 have implied DeLay was the driving force behind the PAC and the group started focusing on corporate dollars when it began having fundraising problems in the weeks leading up to the 2002 elections.
DeLay has claimed Ellis first informed him about the money swap on Oct. 2, 2002, after it had been approved. DeLay has said he didn't meet with Ellis in the month before that date.
Under cross examination Wednesday, Mary Ellen Bos, who was in charge of DeLay's schedule in 2002, testified that Ellis had been in DeLay's Washington office on Sept. 5 and Sept. 11 of that year. Prosecutors told jurors that an hour before Ellis was in DeLay's office on Sept. 11, he had received a blank check from the PAC's accountant in Austin. That check was later sent to the Republican National Committee, or RNC, and filled out for $190,000.
Two other witnesses who testified for DeLay, former RNC officials Charles Spies and Kevin Shuvalov, told jurors the 2002 money swap was not unusual and political parties commonly made such transactions.
Testimony was to resume Thursday.
Before DeLay's attorneys began presenting their case to jurors, they asked Senior Judge Pat Priest to dismiss the case because they believed prosecutors had failed to present any proof the ex-lawmaker committed any crime.
In his legal argument to Priest, Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's lead attorney, reiterated many of the points he presented to jurors during the prosecution's case, including that the type of money swap in the case had been legally done for years by political parties.
"We are being put to trial because we simply did what everybody thought was legal," DeGuerin said. "We are not saying we did it because everybody did it. We are saying everybody did it because it was" legal.
Priest denied the motions to dismiss the charges.
The prosecution's case ended on an unusual note as one of the reporters who's been covering the trial took the witness stand.
Austin American-Statesman reporter Laylan Copelin told jurors Wednesday he conducted an interview with DeLay on Nov. 10 after prosecutors played the audio interview in which DeLay said he knew beforehand about the money swap.
"So if I knew it was $190,000, then I knew it after the deal was already cut and Jim Ellis came to me, told me about it. I probably could have stopped it but why would I? It was — it was a legal deal," DeLay said in the interview with Copelin.
Prosecutors implied to jurors that DeLay confirmed in the interview with the reporter that he knew beforehand about the money swap. His defense attorneys said DeLay was only reiterating he didn't know about it until after it was done.
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, 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."