The state's criminal investigation of Tom DeLay and his two associates, Jim Ellis and John Colyandro, resumed this morning in a Travis County courtroom where Judge Pat Priest ruled that the former U.S. House majority leader would be tried before the others.
The state had hoped to first argue its case against the two men, who face lesser violations of the election code, before taking on the weightier money laundering charge against DeLay. All three defendants attended the hearing. DeLay appeared subdued throughout much of the proceedings, sitting next to his wife in a row near the front of the courtroom.
"One defendant has been demanding a trial since day one, and he's going to get it," Priest said, after noting he was "mindful" that DeLay has been waiting for five years for his day in court. In 2005, amid cries of partisanship, Democratic District Attorney Ronnie Earle indicted the three men for violating state campaign finance laws. During the hearing, J.D. Pauerstein, attorney for Jim Ellis, referenced the ill will many in the GOP feel toward Earle, saying the former DA "trampled over the rights" of the accused in a quest for publicity. DeLay is represented by Dick DeGuerin, the powerhouse criminal defense attorney who counts among his clients Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
The case against the three men goes back to 2002, when the state believes DeLay conspired with Colyandro and Ellis to funnel corporate money raised by DeLay's political action committee through the Republican National Committee, which then donated the same money — from its noncorporate account to get around campaign finance rules — to candidates running for the state Legislature.
Judge Priest denied motions from the defendants' attorneys to dismiss the cases on several counts, but both parties will meet this afternoon with the judge in closed chambers — because they will be discussing grand jury deliberations — to argue whether Earle acted improperly in obtaining the 2005 indictments. Before the morning hearing closed, Priest indicated they were not likely to be successful in getting the charges tossed because of prosecutorial misconduct; he said that they were "standing in a deep hole with a very short stick." On Wednesday morning, he will hear arguments on the defendants' request for change of venue. A trial date has not been set.
Today's hearing comes after the Justice Department decided to drop a separate ethics investigation into DeLay's connections to lobbyist Jack Abramoff last week.