DeLay heads to Texas court in money laundering case; judge says DeLay to get first trial

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Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay will get his long-awaited trial on a money laundering indictment ahead of two co-defendants, who now face lesser charges, a judge said Tuesday.

Senior Judge Pat Priest has not yet set a trial date, but noted at a pre-trial hearing in Austin, Texas, that DeLay has been demanding a trial since his 2005 indictment.

DeLay and his attorney called the decision a victory.

"I've been asking for a trial now for five years. Finally I'm getting a trial," DeLay told reporters outside the courtroom. He said his next goal is to get his trial moved to his home county, conservative Fort Bend in the Houston area, where he says he's more likely to get a fair jury than in liberal Austin.

Prosecutors say they'll press different charges of election code violations against co-defendants John Colyandro and Jim Ellis — essentially severing their cases from DeLay's. Priest said he won't give them a trial before DeLay even though prosecutors were seeking that.

"I don't think so," Priest said. "Not when Mr. DeLay has been demanding a trial for five years."

DeLay and the co-defendants were indicted in 2005 in connection with efforts to fund and elect Republican state legislative candidates in 2002. The three men are accused of illegally funneling $190,000 in corporate money through the Republican National Committee to help elect GOP Texas legislative candidates.

They contend they have done nothing wrong.

DeLay began pressing for an immediately trial in late 2005 to try to save his leadership post in Congress. He resigned in 2006 from the suburban Houston congressional seat in Sugar Land he had held for two decades.

Colyandro and Ellis have been challenging their indictments in appellate courts before trial. Prosecutors also sought pre-trial appellate rulings.

DeLay, 63, arrived smiling at the Travis County criminal courts building Tuesday morning. The former national Republican leader then sat intently listening to the hours of tedious legal arguments. During breaks in the court proceeding, he chuckled and chatted casually about his short stint last year on the television show "Dancing With the Stars."

Throughout the day, defense attorneys argued in court that the indictments should be thrown out because of improper conduct by then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and his prosecutors.

DeLay's defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, noted in court that Earle went before a grand jury seeking quick indictments against DeLay even though a previous grand jury refused to issue an indictment just three days earlier in fall 2005. Part of the hearing was to be closed to the public Tuesday afternoon because secret grand jury proceedings were to be discussed.

Priest rejected earlier motions by all three defendants to toss out the indictments for an assortment of reasons.

"Generally speaking, the defense is standing in a deep hole with a very short stick on all these issues," Priest said.

If convicted of the money laundering charge, DeLay could face five to 99 years, or life, in prison. A money laundering conspiracy charge included in that count could carry a prison term of two to 20 years, according to current District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.