What's at Stake in the Tom DeLay Trial?

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay walks to the 331st District Court of Travis County during the August 2010 start of pre-trial hearings on corruption and money laundering charges against the former politician.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay walks to the 331st District Court of Travis County during the August 2010 start of pre-trial hearings on corruption and money laundering charges against the former politician.

He rose from running a pest control company to serving as the most powerful Republican in Congress. Today, five years after Tom DeLay’s fall from power, his trial on the money laundering and conspiracy charges that forced his resignation as U.S. House majority leader is finally slated to begin.

The Texas GOP continues to reap the spoils of the Sugar Land Republican’s skillful reshuffling of congressional districts. But the national party, once so dependent on strong-arms like DeLay, Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, lost power after the fracturing 2008 elections, and despite an undoubtedly more upbeat night tomorrow will have work to do as Tea Party leaders move into the mainstream. DeLay’s name, long synonymous with overwhelming political might, now evokes Dancing with the Stars irrelevancy. He'll already go down in the annals as the protagonist in a cautionary tale of overreach, so just what is at stake these next few weeks — besides voyeuristic curiosity about whether a former congressman will go to prison?

For liberal watchdog groups like Texans for Public Justice, the answer is a lot. Ask the group's director, Craig McDonald, and his ready quip indicates he’s heard the question before: "Justice ‘DeLayed’ is not always justice denied." For McDonald, the consequences of the 2002 elections — in which DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority helped elect a class full of GOP members who, in turn, elected the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction — are still fresh: The wave of new lawmakers helped Republicans win 2003's contentious battle over redistricting. The trial that starts today is over whether DeLay's tactics back then were legal. McDonald says its outcome will show whether the state is willing to hold politicians accountable for breaking  campaign finance law — whether you can “get away with whatever you want, because you are the party in power."

"The verdict has a potential to reverberate from Austin to Washington D.C.,” McDonald says. “Tom DeLay is a national political figure, and while he might be have been forgotten by many, I think it will still send signals through the political class that even though he may be exonerated by an ethics committee in Congress, there's a grand jury here in Texas that won't let him get away with it."

It's true that the people most closely watching the outcome of the trial will be the political consultants, campaign finance lawyers and party operatives who make their livings advising candidates and officeholders on how to navigate roiling legal waters. Among those insiders is lobbyist Jack Gullahorn, the president of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, which represents lobbyists in legislative and administrative matters. Gullahorn says that whatever the trial's outcome, the biggest impact might be circumstantial: moving ethical questions into the public eye just before lawmakers return to Austin.

“The biggest thing about this case is that it's another high-profile ingredient in the environment that we are going into the next session with,” he says. That environment includes the recent conviction of state Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, and widely publicized national cases concerning legislators and bribery, which Gullahorn says “in other states [have] traditionally brought intense scrutiny from prosecutors and regulators.” Combined with the “public’s attitude to toward government in general” right now, he says, that could make campaign finance ethics a talking point in a legislative session whose agenda is already consumed by the thorny issues of a budget shortfall and decennial redistricting.

The judge’s ruling in the DeLay case also holds special importance after the U.S. Supreme Court's bombshell ruling overturning a century-old prohibition on corporate contributions to candidates. If the transfer between DeLay’s PAC and the Republican National Committee is found to be legal, there will be even fewer limitations on corporate and union cash in elections, says campaign finance lawyer Fred Lewis, who is an expert witness in the DeLay case. Texans for a Republican Majority, prosecutors say, sent $190,000 in corporate money — which couldn't be used in the state races, to the Republican National Committee. The committee then made $190,000 in contributions to Texas House candidates using money that wasn't from corporations. Prosecutors and outside critics call that money laundering. DeLay's lawyers strongly reject that characterization. 

"If money laundering is allowed such as it happened here, the ship just might be about sunk,” Lewis says. “The only thing that will be prohibited is giving a contribution directly to a candidate, at which point the argument will be, 'Well, there's so many holes anyway, what difference does it make?' And that will be the end of it all."

 

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