AUSTIN, Texas – During a 22-year career in the U.S. House, Tom DeLay helped build up the Republican Party’s power — and, by extension, his own — through a combination of shrewd strategy and hardball tactics that earned him the nickname “The Hammer” and elevated him to the chamber’s second-highest post.
But one such effort to shore up GOP clout also proved to be his undoing and could cost the former House majority leader his freedom.
DeLay was defiant Wednesday after a jury convicted him in what prosecutors alleged was a scheme to send more Republicans to Congress by funneling illegal corporate money to Texas legislative candidates in 2002.
Outside the courtroom, he complained about an “abuse of power” and “miscarriage of justice” from the jury in Austin, the most Democratic city in one of the most Republican states.
“I still maintain that I am innocent. The criminalization of politics undermines our very system and I’m very disappointed in the outcome,” said DeLay, who remains free on bond pending the punishment phase of the trial, tentatively set to begin on Dec. 20.
Jurors deliberated for 19 hours before returning guilty verdicts against DeLay on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He faces five years to life in prison on the money laundering charge and two to 20 years on the conspiracy charge. He also would be eligible for probation.
After the verdict was handed down, DeLay reiterated his long held belief that he was being punished for his politics. He was a hero to conservatives but public enemy No. 1 to liberals.
After serving as a Texas legislator, DeLay was first elected to the U.S. House in 1984 and methodically rose up the ranks. He was instrumental in the Republican Revolution that swept Republicans into power in 1994, and that year was elected majority whip, the chamber’s No. 3 job, under new Speaker Newt Gingrich. DeLay ascended to majority leader eight years later when fellow Texan Dick Armey retired.
Although he claimed the media assigned him the nickname “The Hammer,” DeLay grew to endorse the description of his hard-knuckled style. He gained the loyalty of fellow Republicans through his fundraising efforts but was also criticized for his strong-arm tactics and efforts to consolidate Republican power.
The 2005 criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of DeLay’s ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, ended his long political career representing suburban Houston. The Justice Department probe into DeLay’s ties to Abramoff concluded without any charges filed against DeLay.
DeLay and his attorneys maintained the former congressman did nothing wrong as no corporate funds went to Texas candidates, the money swap was legal and prosecutors had failed to prove he had committed any crime as their case relied mostly on circumstantial evidence.
DeLay’s attorneys tried unsuccessfully to get the case moved from Austin with no success. His lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, predicted the verdict wouldn’t hold up on appeal.
As he consoled his daughter Danielle after the verdict was read in the courtroom, DeLay whispered in her ear that he couldn’t get a fair trial in Austin.
DeLay had contended the charges against him were a political vendetta by Ronnie Earle, the former Democratic Travis County district attorney who originally brought the case and is now retired.
Rosemary Lehmberg, who replaced Earle as district attorney, said the trial was not about criminalizing politics.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. If you’re a public official, act with integrity and honesty, or you’ll be held accountable,” she said.
The verdict came after a three-week trial in which prosecutors presented more than 30 witnesses and volumes of e-mails and other documents. DeLay’s attorneys only called five witnesses.
Lehmberg said prosecutors will decide in the next few weeks what sentence they will recommend. DeLay had the option of being sentenced by either the jury or Senior Judge Pat Priest, and chose the judge.
Jurors left the courthouse right after the verdict was read. Two of them called it a tough decision, but they otherwise declined to comment to reporters.
Prosecutors said DeLay conspired with two associates, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, to use his Texas-based political action committee to send $190,000 in corporate money to an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee. The RNC then sent the same amount to seven Texas statehouse candidates. Under Texas law, corporate money can’t go directly to political campaigns.
Prosecutors claim 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.
Ellis and Colyandro, who face lesser charges, will be tried later.
Except for a 2009 appearance on ABC’s hit television show “Dancing With the Stars,” DeLay has been out of the spotlight since resigning from Congress in 2006. He now runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.