In what may be a hollow victory for his political opponents, who still must grapple with his skillful redrawing of the state’s political maps in 2003, former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, was sentenced Monday to three years in prison.
On Nov. 24, a state court jury found DeLay guilty of money laundering and conspiracy for funneling corporate money to candidates in state races through his political action committee in 2002. Now barring a successful appeal, the former congressman, who represented CD-22 for 22 years until he resigned in 2006, is headed to prison.
Addressing the state court before Judge Pat Priest sentenced him Monday, the Sugar Land Republican decried the “criminalization of politics.”
“It’s dangerous to our system. Just because somebody disagrees with you — it’s not enough to ruin your reputation,” he said, “They have to put you in jail, bankrupt you, destroy your family."
For Democrats, the 2002 state house elections — in which DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority PAC helped elect a class of GOP members who, in turn, elected the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction — marked a crossroads in Texas politics. The wave of new lawmakers helped Republicans win the 2003 legislative session’s bitter battle over redistricting.
“There is little reason to feel comfort in justice being served to Tom DeLay today,” said Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle in a statement. “His corrupt, partisan legacy lives on in Austin and is being practiced enthusiastically by the Republicans currently in control in Texas.”
Priest sentenced the 20-year congressman to three years for the conspiracy charge, suspended a five-year sentence for the money laundering charge and placed DeLay on 10 years probation. After a brief time in custody yesterday, he was released on a $10,000 bond.
At Monday’s hearing, DeLay's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said he would appeal. That could take Austin’s 3rd Court of Appeals another year — or two — to resolve depending on the arguments DeGuerin raises. If the appeal fails and he does land in prison, he will be eligible for parole after four months. And Gov. Rick Perry could always decide pardon him, a move that could prove popular in conservative circles that believe the prosecution of DeLay was politically motivated.
Austin criminal lawyer Keith Hampton, who was not involved in the case, called Priest’s sentencing of DeLay “smart.”
“No one can say that DeLay was treated more harshly or more leniently than anyone else,” Hampton said. “He picked a sentencing arrangement that you see all the time in nonviolent, property-type offense. He didn't go to far or too light."
DeLay's defense team submitted more than 30 character letters from the Sugar Land Republican's friends and colleagues, including eight current congressmen, on Monday. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was the only witness that testified in person. He said DeLay was never "power hungry," as prosecutors described him, citing a time when DeLay passed up the opportunity to become speaker because of his high profile and that DeLay never admitted to him any wrongdoing.
DeGuerin said DeLay has lost everything because of the indictment.
"Is it political?" he asked. "I believe it is. We accept that the jury returned its verdict, but we do not accept it’s right. We will challenge it. But Tom DeLay did what he did because he believed in his ideals, in his principles, and that’s all he’s done all his life."
When he addressed the court, DeLay said he never expressed remorse because he did not believe he was guilty. "I didn't make money out of anything. None of this was for personal gain," he said.
In his closing argument to the court, Travis County Assistant District Attorney Steve Brand said the judge was in a unique position to affect the behavior of members of Congress in the future. He said that it would be a wake-up call for members to know that if they did the same, they would go to prison.
"No one is above the law," Brand said. "And that quote is attributed to Tom DeLay. I respectfully ask that we put him in prison, not so that he goes years from now, but that he goes today.”