The Verdict on DeLay: Guilty

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After hearing three weeks of testimony and deliberating for three days, 12 jurors delivered a verdict on Tom DeLay late Wednesday afternoon. They found the former majority leader guilty on both charges: money laundering and conspiracy to launder money. He faces up to 99 years in prison.

The jury was considering questions larger than the man indicted by the Travis County district attorney five years earlier. On trial in Austin was the state’s ban on corporate contributions to political candidates, and the now-defunct fundraising operation that the D.C. press corps once referred to as “DeLay Inc.”

It was DeLay’s national fundraising combine that poured more than $1 million into the 2002 election, electing a Republican majority to the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction. The election was a prelude to the 2003 redrawing of the state’s congressional lines—a second run at redistricting after the 2000 census.

When the trial began in the first week of November, the prosecution called to the witness stand some of DeLay Inc.’s biggest investors. Executives from El Paso (energy) Corp., Reliant Energy, Cracker Barrel Country Stores, Sears, Bacardi, Phillip Morris, Diversified Collections, and Westar testified about corporate contributions they had made to DeLay’s leadership PAC in Washington and to its short-lived Texas clone, the Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC). The contributions ranged from $25,000 to $100,000.

If the “soft” money raised from these corporate sources could be sent to a political committee outside the state of Texas as TRMPAC did in 2002 with $190,000, and returned to the state as “hard” money raised from individual donors—and thus be legal to donate to political candidates—the state’s ban on corporate funding of elections would be undone. (Read the Observer’s original series of exposes of the TRMPAC scandal.)

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On the final day of testimony, DeLay Inc. found its way into the proceedings again, when a name no one on the defense team wanted to see appeared on the courtroom video screen: Jack Abramoff, scheduled for a 3 p.m. meeting on Sept. 5, 2002, in the then-majority leader’s Capitol office.

Two of DeLay’s former congressional aides had been sent to federal prison for their dealings with Abramoff. Earlier this year, the Justice Department concluded an investigation into DeLay’s dealings with Abramoff, with no federal charges filed against DeLay.

DeLay’s defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, objected to Abramoff’s name being read aloud in court.

Yet it’s unlikely that any of the jurors in district court in Austin would have connected DeLay to the former lobbyist, who is scheduled for release from a halfway house in Baltimore on Dec. 4, 2010, after serving a sentence for defrauding his clients, the corruption of public officials, mail fraud, and tax evasion. Abramoff was only a footnote to the state’s case against DeLay, his name appearing on the calendar projected onto the screen because the prosecution had referenced another meeting that DeLay had scheduled on the same day.

Yet when DeLay’s national leadership PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC), was raising more money than any of its Republican or Democratic counterparts, Abramoff was its cash conduit, a seemingly unending source of political money. And the funding machine known as “Team Abramoff” was often indistinguishable from “DeLay Inc.”

In his closing argument to the jury on Nov, 19,  lead prosecutor Gary Cobb returned to DeLay Inc.—which he described to jurors as “DeLay Incorporated.” He also came back to DeLay’s 2002 calendar, which he used as the narrative spine for a compelling 45-minute closing argument.

Cobb walked the jury through DeLay’s daily schedules, linking the names of corporate executives who had written $25,000 checks to DeLay with the specific dates on which DeLay traveled on the executives’ corporate jets. The free flights were more than in-kind contributions. They provided the corporate executives with whom DeLay traveled the facetime for which they had paid.

If the jurors acquitted Tom DeLay, Cobb warned them moments before they retired for deliberations, they would overturn a law that has kept corporate money out of elections in Texas for almost 100 years, and any candidate in Texas could circumvent the ban on corporate funding of Texas campaigns—as DeLay and his Texas PAC had done in 2002.

“If you let Tom DeLay walk out of here and beat that,” Cobb said  “everybody gets beat.”

DeLay walked. But not as he would have had it. “Mr. DeLay may remain under the bond he has been on heretofore,” said Judge Pat Priest, before allowing DeLay to leave he courtroom.

“I still maintain that I’m innocent, and that the criminalization of politics undermines our very system,” DeLay said as he left the courtroom.

“It is what it is,” DeLay said of the verdict. “And maybe we can get it before people that understand the law.”

He returns to Austin for the sentencing phase of the trial on Dec. 20.