AUSTIN, Texas – A forensic accountant testified in Tom DeLay's money laundering trial Tuesday that the former U.S. House majority leader's political action committee referred to $190,000 it raised as corporate campaign contributions, which are illegal in Texas.
But attorneys for DeLay told jurors that the corporate money reference was simply a labeling mistake and no corporate funds went to Texas candidates.
Prosecutors allege $190,000 was illegally funneled through DeLay's PAC to Texas GOP candidates in 2002, and ultimately helped send more Republicans to Congress. DeLay, a once powerful but polarizing Texas congressman, has long denied any wrongdoing. He could face up to life in prison if convicted.
Marshall Vogt, a senior forensic analyst with the Travis County District Attorney's Office, told jurors that in reviewing the PAC's financial records, he found $190,000 was listed as being "soft campaign contributions."
Corporate donations are also referred to as "soft money," Vogt said. Under Texas law, corporate money cannot go directly to political campaigns.
DeLay and two associates — John Colyandro and Jim Ellis — are accused of illegally channeling $190,000 in corporate donations collected by DeLay's PAC in Texas through an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee, or RNC. The money went to seven Texas House candidates in 2002.
Prosecutors allege the money helped Republicans take control of the Texas House in 2002. 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.
DeLay's attorneys maintain the $190,000 was part of a legal money swap between DeLay's PAC and the RNC.
DeLay, who has pleaded not guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, has said he had little involvement in how the PAC was run.
In questioning Vogt, Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's lead attorney, told jurors that the use of the phrase "soft campaign contributions" in the PAC's records was just incorrect terminology used by the group's accountant.
"You didn't find a single campaign contribution to a candidate coming out of that account? The soft money?" DeGuerin asked Vogt.
"I didn't see any payments directly to candidates out of that account," Vogt replied.
Vogt also told jurors about phone records he examined that showed calls made among Ellis, Colyandro and other people who prosecutors allege were involved in the scheme. The calls were made during a four-week period in September and October 2002, when the $190,000 was sent to the RNC and when the seven Texas candidates received their money.
Vogt acknowledged that he didn't know what was discussed in the calls. He said investigators found no calls between DeLay's home phone number and Colyandro, Ellis or others during that time period, but investigators couldn't check DeLay's cell phone records because they couldn't figure out the number.
Vogt told jurors he also examined the records from the RNC and determined that in 2002, the group sent less than $33,000 in donations to state legislative candidates around the U.S., excluding Texas. In comparison, the seven Texas candidates got $190,000.
On cross-examination, DeGuerin said prosecutors' case largely relied on circumstantial evidence.
"Not a single soul has come up with any evidence that Tom DeLay called the shots on this deal. Right?" DeGuerin asked Vogt, who said he didn't know how to answer the question.
Prosecutors plan to close their case Wednesday.
On Tuesday, prosecutors also questioned Steve Bickerstaff, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who put the 2003 redistricting effort into historical context for jurors. Prosecutors claim the redistricting effort was the primary motive for the alleged scheme by DeLay's PAC.
Senior Judge Pat Priest had warned both sides not to make Bickerstaff's testimony political, but DeGuerin repeatedly argued that prosecutors' questions and the law professor's testimony were about politics and not history.
"This is politics we're talking about now and we're not going to do it anymore," Priest told the attorneys.
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."