Note: I wrote this story as a freelance correspondent for Agence France-Presse. The copy below is exactly what I submitted to AFP in January 2006, pre-editing.
Time appears to be against U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay in his fight to exonerate himself of money laundering charges before he is permanently replaced as House majority leader.
In an attempt to meet a late January deadline for DeLay to regain his position, DeLay’s attorneys asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to compel a lower court to give the congressman a speedy trial. Since the state’s response to the request was filed today, the court could agree to consider the issue as early as Wednesday, but would not make a decision for another two weeks.
The political damage to DeLay might be done even if the case turns out the best, said Bruce Buchanan, Government professor at the University of Texas.
“Just having been drug through this is probably going to cost him something,” Buchanan said.
DeLay, an ally of President George W. Bush, was forced to resign his majority leader post after he was indicted in September for conspiracy and money laundering charges in violation of campaign finance laws for allegedly funneling $190,000 in corporate contributions through political action committees to seven Texas lawmakers.
The conspiracy charge was later dismissed, and the state is in the process of appealing that decision. In the meantime, DeLay’s attorneys wanted the court to move ahead with the trial for money laundering. When the district court refused that request, DeLay’s attorneys appealed.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle wrote Tuesday that DeLay is trying to “leapfrog” through the Texas courts system and that this is not an “extraordinary” case that warrants an intervention from the state’s highest court.
“To treat Mr. DeLay’s case as extraordinary merely because of the leadership position that he once held in Congress would violate the core principle of American government as a government of laws rather than men,” Earle wrote. “Mr. DeLay refuses to accept the normal process of our justice system.”
George Dix, a University of Texas at Austin law professor who specializes in Texas criminal procedure, said the appeals court has a “strong tradition” of only becoming involved in cases in which the defendant is convicted and then alleges something was wrong with the trial. DeLay’s case does not follow that tradition.
“If I were a betting person I wouldn’t bet much on this,” Dix said about the likelihood of the appeals court even considering the issue.
If not, the case would be put on hold until Jan. 18 when state attorneys are expected to explain why DeLay should still be tried for the conspiracy charge.
DeLay has steadfastly denied the charges against him and said they are a “political vendetta.” But the case is part of a growing political scandal surrounding the man known as “the Hammer.”
A former top DeLay aide pleaded guilty in November to a charge of conspiracy to commit bribery and fraud. Michael Scanlon, who was a partner of lobbyist Jack Abramoff after leaving Congress, was accused of working with Abramoff to defraud several Indian tribes seeking support for their gambling interests in Washington.
Abramoff on Tuesday also pleaded guilty, which sets the stage for his cooperation in an investigation which threatens a number of powerful members of the U.S. Congress, including DeLay.
Although DeLay has not been charged in the probe, his trips and fundraising have been closely scrutinized because of his close ties to Abramoff.
“None of this is good for DeLay’s future,” Buchanan said. “He’s vulnerable politically in his own district in a way he hasn’t been prior to all these unpleasantries [sic].”