AUSTIN, Texas — Tom DeLay took part in a scheme to illegally channel corporate money into Texas legislative races in order to strengthen his power and influence, prosecutors said Monday in opening statements of the former U.S. House majority leader's money laundering trial.
DeLay's attorneys countered that no corporate money was given to Texas candidates and that the only thing the once-powerful but polarizing ex-lawmaker is guilty of is being a good politician.
Travis County prosecutor Beverly Mathews said DeLay and two associates — Jim Ellis and John Colyandro — illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate money, which had been collected by a group DeLay started, through the Washington-based Republican National Committee to help elect GOP state legislative candidates in 2002. Under Texas law, corporate money cannot be directly used for political campaigns.
"The evidence will show you they took the corporate money they knew could not be given and came up with a scheme where that dirty money could be turned clean and given to candidates," Mathews said.
DeLay, who has long denied any wrongdoing, is charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.
Mathews told jurors the $190,000 that was collected by DeLay's Texas political action committee was exchanged for the same amount through the Republican National Committee and ultimately given to seven Texas candidates. She said the money swap was supervised and facilitated by DeLay.
Mathews said the Republicans won a majority in the Texas House as a result of DeLay's scheme, meaning they could then push through a congressional redistricting plan engineered by DeLay that would send more Texas Republicans to Congress. Republicans won a majority in the Texas House in 2002 and congressional redistricting sent more Texas Republican to Congress in 2004.
"There is nothing wrong with Republicans trying to dominate the political world," Mathews said. "But the means to achieve that gain must be lawful."
During his opening statement, DeLay's lead attorney repeatedly told jurors that no corporate money was ever given to Texas candidates.
Dick DeGuerin acknowledged DeLay's political action committee sent $190,000 in corporate money to an arm of the Republican National Committee and that the national committee used money collected from individual donations to send $190,000 to seven Texas GOP candidates.
"It's not the same money. No money was laundered," DeGuerin said. As DeGuerin spoke to jurors, a television screen next to him displayed the words: "No corporate money went to candidates in Texas."
DeGuerin said DeLay, who didn't make decisions for his political action committee, lawfully raised money and promoted the interests of the GOP.
"He did it so successfully that there was a lot of anger. You cannot convict Tom DeLay because he was a better politician than the other side was. That's not a crime," DeGuerin said.
Before opening statements, DeLay was upbeat as he entered the Austin courtroom.
"The prosecution doesn't have a case. How can I not feel confident?" said DeLay, standing next to his wife, Christine.
The first two witnesses, Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group, and Fred Lewis, an Austin-based independent political watchdog, testified that they filed complaints with the Travis County District Attorney's Office, asking it to investigate DeLay's political action committee, which they suspected of using corporate money for political candidates.
DeGuerin tried to portray McDonald and Lewis as individuals biased against Republicans. Both men denied that.
Testimony was to resume Tuesday with George Ceverha, the ex-treasurer of DeLay's Texas-based political action committee.
DeLay has been pressing for a trial since he was indicted five years ago, but the case was slowed by appeals of pretrial rulings, including his attorneys' attempt to move the trial out of Austin — the most Democratic city in one of the most Republican states.
DeLay and DeGuerin have said the charges are politically motivated by former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who brought the original case but has since retired. Earle is a Democrat. Prosecutors deny the charges are politically motivated.
DeLay's defense team also worried about the trial being held in liberal Austin and its timing, with testimony beginning a day before the contentious midterm elections. Jurors were selected last week, and the trial is expected to last three weeks.
DeLay was once one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, earning the nickname "the Hammer" for his heavy-handed style.
The criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of his ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, forced DeLay to step down as majority leader and eventually to resign after representing suburban Houston for 22 years. The Justice Department ended its federal investigation into DeLay's ties to Abramoff without filing any charges against DeLay.
Ellis and Colyandro, who face lesser charges, will be tried later. A previous charge alleging they and DeLay had engaged in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws was dismissed.
DeLay has been mostly out of public view since resigning from Congress, except for an appearance on ABC's hit television show "Dancing With the Stars." He now runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.