AUSTIN, Texas — Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, once considered among the nation's most powerful and feared lawmakers, was sentenced to three years in prison Monday for a scheme to influence elections that already cost him his job, leadership post and millions of dollars in legal fees.
The sentence comes after a jury in November convicted DeLay, a Houston-area Republican, on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering for using a political action committee to illegally send corporate donations to Texas House candidates in 2002.
Prosecutors said DeLay will likely be free for months or even years as his appeal makes it through the Texas court system.
Before being sentenced, DeLay repeated his longstanding claims that he did nothing wrong, the prosecution was politically motivated and that he never intended to break the law. DeLay was convicted in Travis County, one of the most Democratic counties in Texas, which is one of the most Republican states in the country.
"I can't be remorseful for something I don't think I did," DeLay said in a 10-minute speech to the judge.
DeLay told Senior Judge Pat Priest the "selective prosecution" he's gone through has deeply affected his wife's health, forced him to raise and spend $10 million in legal fees and cost him everything he has worked for — including the second-highest post in the U.S. House.
"This criminalization of politics is very dangerous. It's dangerous to our system. Just because somebody disagrees with you they got to put you in jail, bankrupt you, destroy your family," he said.
Priest sentenced him to the three-year term on the conspiracy charge. He also sentenced him to five years in prison on the money laundering charge but allowed DeLay to serve 10 years of probation instead of more prison time.
"I do not agree that the Travis County District Attorney's Office has picked on Tom DeLay to persecute," Priest said.
DeLay was briefly taken into custody, but Priest granted a request from his attorneys that he be released on a $10,000 bond pending appeal. About three hours after he was sentenced, DeLay posted bond and walked out of the county jail without talking to reporters.
DeLay's attorney Dick DeGuerin said he expected the conviction would be overturned.
"If I told you what I thought, I'd get sued," DeGuerin said. "This will not stand."
The former congressman had faced up to life in prison. His attorneys asked for probation.
"What we feel is that justice was served," lead prosecutor Gary Cobb said.
During his closing argument, Cobb told Priest that if DeLay received only probation, the ex-lawmaker would use such a sentence to make himself a martyr for his political beliefs and that he would "wear probation like Jesus on the cross."
"He put his principles, ideals and beliefs above the laws of Texas," Cobb said.
Priest issued his ruling after a brief sentencing hearing on Monday in which former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert testified on DeLay's behalf.
Prosecutors attempted to present only one witness at the hearing, Peter Cloeren, a Southeast Texas businessman who claimed DeLay had urged him in 1996 to evade campaign finance laws in a separate case. Prosecutors said the case was similar to the one DeLay was being sentenced for.
But not long after Cloeren began testifying, Senior Judge Pat Priest declined to hear the testimony, saying prosecutors couldn't prove the businessman's claims beyond a reasonable doubt. DeLay's attorneys objected to the testimony, saying the former lawmaker was not criminally charged in the case. Cloeren pleaded guilty to directing illegal corporate money into the 1996 congressional campaign of an East Texas candidate.
DeLay's attorneys had indicated they would have up to nine witnesses but decided to present only Hastert.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican who was House speaker from 1999 to 2006, testified that DeLay was not motivated by power but for a need to help others. Hastert talked about DeLay's conservative and religious values, his efforts to provide tax relief for his constituents in Texas, his work helping foster children and the help he provided to the family of one of the police officers who was killed in a 1998 shooting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
"That's the real Tom DeLay that a lot of people never got to see," Hastert said.
DeLay's lawyers had also submitted more than 30 character and support letters from friends and political leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and eight current U.S. congressmen. Most of the letters ask for leniency in the sentencing.
After a month-long trial in November, a jury determined that he conspired with two associates 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 House 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 Republican majority to push through a Delay-engineered congressional redistricting plan that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004, strengthening DeLay's political power.
DeLay contended the charges were politically motivated and the money swap in question was legal. DeGuerin says DeLay committed no crime and believes the convictions will be overturned on appeal.