DeLay's Bid to Move Trial from Travis County Rejected

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, speaks with media at the 331st District Court of Travis County during the pretrial hearings on money laundering charges against the former congressman.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, speaks with media at the 331st District Court of Travis County during the pretrial hearings on money laundering charges against the former congressman.

UPDATE: Judge Pat Priest has just denied Tom DeLay's request for a change of venue. The former congressman will be tried in Travis County, though he may still raise the issue again during the process of jury selection. The trial date has tentatively been set for Oct. 26.

Previous post on the court proceedings:

Tom DeLay isn't popular in Travis County, and he knows it. That's why he wants his trial moved to another jurisdiction.

As the former majority leader of the U.S. House sat through the second day of hearings in Travis County criminal court on Wednesday, witnesses testified again and again that potential jurors in the predominantly Democratic county don't like him and they feel strongly about it.

To get a trial moved, a defendant must prove that the potential jury pool is so prejudiced against him that he won't be able to get a fair trial. On Wednesday, his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, called pollsters and lawyers with jury trial experience in what he called the "most political county in the state" to testify that jurors here could not weigh the case against DeLay impartially. Austin pollster Mark Del Signore said that, in a survey conducted this week, 59 percent of Travis County voters had a negative opinion of DeLay. Forty percent believed he was guilty of money laundering, and — at this, the Sugar Land Republican gave a bemused smile — only 2 percent have a strongly postive impression of him. The negative opinion numbers did put DeLay ahead of the last Republican president in the poll, something Judge Pat Priest referenced during a lull in the proceedings, saying "at least [DeLay] can take comfort in that he beat George Bush."

The case against DeLay dates back to 2002, when the state believes he conspired with two other men, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, to get around campaign finance laws regarding corporate donations. To do that, they gave corporate money raised by DeLay's political action committee to the Republican National Committee, which then donated the same money — from its noncorporate account — to candidates running for the state Legislature. Colyandro and Ellis are charged with violations of the election code; DeLay faces a money-laundering charge.

Anthony Icenogle, an Austin-based litigator called by DeGuerin, offered an anecdote as an example of how potential jurors feel about DeLay in Travis County. He said that when he told his secretary that he was going to a hearing in DeLay's case, she responded by calling the former congressman a "thief," adding that he thought that was "a common sentiment in Travis County."

"I'd like to apologize to Mr. DeLay for bringing this up in open court," he said.

DeGuerin presented a file of Austin American-Statesman articles dating back to 2006 as further evidence of the county's animus against DeLay. He said the newspaper's "unrelenting" coverage of DeLay has contributed to his unfriendly reception there. To prove his point, he held up Wednesday's paper and read the first sentence of a story covering the previous day's hearing, which reads "Tom DeLay is headed to trial on money laundering charges, his lawyer conceded Tuesday…" 

The word "conceded" needled DeGuerin. "We've been asking for a trial for five years, we didn't concede anything," he told the judge. "But that's just the way the Austin paper does things."

To counter such testimony, the state called Michelle Brinkman, who supervises the jury selection process in Travis County and challenged the assumption that it was predominantly Democratic. In 2004, she pointed out, George W. Bush received around 40 percent of the vote — and said in her experience, jury pools in Travis County tend to consist of "people who have voted about 40 percent Republican and 60 percent Democrat." The state also challenged the validity of the poll numbers showing DeLay's unpopularity, with witness Monica Davis, who runs a media monitoring service. Davis testified that in her line of work, she would question results obtained by "piggybacking" the questions on to another poll without knowing the greater context of that poll — which DeLay's pollster testified he did not.

Leaving the courtroom during a midday break, DeLay said the negativity about him in the poll "surprised" him. He added: "I understand what the price of leadership is, and what the press is, and I've lived with it for now going on 30 years."

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