Tom DeLay: How his crowning moment became a money laundering conviction

Tom DeLay, a former GOP House majority leader, was instrumental in the GOP taking the Texas Legislature in 2002 for the first time since Reconstruction. But one of his contributions to the cause was illegally laundered money, a jury ruled Wednesday.

Larry Kolvoord/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Tom DeLay leaves the courtroom at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center Wednesday in Austin, Texas. DeLay was convicted on charges he illegally funneled corporate money to Texas candidates in 2002.

After nearly half a decade of legal proceedings, former US House majority leader Tom DeLay was convicted today in a Texas court of money laundering and conspiracy related to a 1903 Texas law that bans corporate contributions to state political campaigns.

At issue was some $190,000 in corporate contributions to Mr. DeLay’s political action committee that prosecutors said was illegally passed on to GOP state candidates in 2002, helping Republicans gain control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

The jury deliberated 19 hours before reaching a guilty verdict that carries a penalty ranging from seven years to 20 years for the conspiracy charge to life in prison for criminal money laundering. DeLay said that he plans to appeal the conviction.

A force in the GOP rise to power both in Texas and the US House of Representatives, DeLay won his nickname, “the Hammer,” for his rigid enforcement of party discipline. His ties with Washington lobbyists drew criticism from public interest groups as well as four warnings from the House ethics panel over issues ranging from threatening a trade association that failed to hire a Republican as its president to accepting expensive gifts and trips in violation of House rules.

For several years, DeLay's 2002 bid to help Republicans gain control of the Texas Legislature was widely viewed as his crowning triumph. The new Republican majority quickly drew up a new redistricting map favorable to Republicans.

In fact, DeLay was so entwined in the Texas legislative power struggle that he asked the Federal Aviation Administration to track a plane believed to be carrying Texas Democrats escaping the state to avoid a quorum call for a vote on the GOP redistricting plan – a move that also drew a warning for DeLay from the House ethics panel.

In the end, the new Texas redistricting map helped Republicans topple five Democratic incumbents in the US House elections of 2004, accounting for the entire Republican net gain that year.

But an indictment by a Texas grand jury on Sept. 28, 2005, turned the triumphal mood on its head. House Republican caucus rules mandated that any party leader step down after a criminal indictment, but DeLay did not resign his position as majority leader until Jan. 7, 2006. Three months later, he gave up his House seat.

In the trial, DeLay's lawyer argued that the $190,000 in corporate donations that DeLay gave to to the Republican National Committee (RNC) through his state political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, was not the same money that the RNC later sent to state candidates in Texas at DeLay's direction. The jury disagreed, essentially deciding that DeLay attempted to use the RNC as an end run around Texas campaign finance laws.

“In moving money around in order to use illegal corporate funds to elect candidates in Texas, Tom DeLay displayed a startling contempt for our laws and our democratic process. Initially, he even bragged about what he had done. He should be punished accordingly,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit campaign-finance reform advocacy group, in a statement after today’s verdict.

The DeLay conviction “means that some politicians sometimes will be held accountable for wrong doing – there’s been so little of this of late,” adds Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The judge in the case will decide DeLay's sentence. Probation is possible.

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