12-6-05 - Rep. Tom DeLay could face a trial early next year now that a judge has refused to throw out money-laundering allegations against the former House majority leader.
Judge Pat Priest dismissed a conspiracy charge against DeLay in his ruling Monday, but with the more serious charges still intact, the case heads closer to trial _ although other defense objections remain to be heard.
DeLay's hopes of reclaiming his powerful position as House majority leader were dealt a blow by the ruling. He had hoped to have the charges resolved by the time Congress reconvened in late January, so he could step back into his role as majority leader. Although Monday's ruling was a partial victory, DeLay cannot reclaim the post because he is still under indictment.
And the longer the House goes without a permanent majority leader, the more likely it is that Republicans will elect a new one.
The ruling comes after a hearing late last month in which the Republican's attorney argued the indictment was fatally flawed.
The judge's decision to throw out the conspiracy charge "underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were," said DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden.
After his indictment in September, DeLay, under House rules, relinquished the leadership post he had held since 2003.
If the charges against him are resolved, DeLay still has a chance of returning as long as the House GOP caucus is patient. At any time, though, his colleagues could decide to hold new elections.
District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who pursued the charges against DeLay, said in a statement that he has not decided whether to appeal the ruling. Prosecutors have 15 days to challenge the decision.
Priest, who is presiding over the case, said he would not set another hearing until the appeal decision has been resolved.
DeLay declined to speak with reporters Monday evening as he entered a campaign fundraiser with Vice President Dick Cheney at a Houston hotel.
But Madden said DeLay "is very encouraged by the swift progress of the legal proceedings and looks forward to his eventual and absolute exoneration based on the facts and the law."
DeLay, 58, and two GOP fundraisers, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, are accused of illegally funneling $190,000 in corporate donations to 2002 Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature. Under Texas law, corporate money cannot be directly used for political campaigns, but it can be used for administrative purposes.
DeLay lawyer Dick DeGuerin asked that the charges be thrown out, arguing that one charge _ conspiracy to violate the Texas election code _ did not even take effect until September 2003, a year after the alleged offenses occurred.
Prosecutors, however, said the crime of conspiracy was already on the books, and could be applied to the election code even though such uses were not explicitly in state law at the time.
The judge was not persuaded by that argument and dismissed the conspiracy charge.
However, the judge upheld charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Those charges involve an alleged attempt by DeLay to conceal the source of the campaign contributions by funneling the money through his own political action committee and then an arm of the Republican National Committee.
In trying to have those charges thrown out, the defense argued that the Texas money laundering law applies only to coins or paper money. But the judge said that checks "are clearly funds and can be the subject of money laundering."
The defense attorneys also argued that the definition of money laundering in Texas involves the transfer of criminal proceeds, and the money in this case was not illegal to begin.
But the judge rejected that argument, too, saying the money became suspect when "it began to be held with the prohibited intent."
Conspiracy to violate the election code carries up to two years in prison. Money laundering is punishable by five years to life. Conspiracy to commit money laundering carries two years.
The alleged campaign-finance scheme had far-reaching political effects: With DeLay's fund-raising muscle, the GOP took control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years, then pushed through a congressional redistricting plan engineered by DeLay that resulted in more Texas Republicans going to Congress.
The judge has yet to rule on a defense bid to move DeLay's trial out of liberal, Democratic-leaning Austin and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. DeGuerin accused the district attorney of shopping the DeLay case around to different grand juries until he found one that would indict the congressman.
The judge acted as a CNN-USA Today/Gallup poll showed that DeLay's political standing has weakened considerably in his home district around Houston.
The Dec. 1-4 survey of 713 registered voters found 49 percent saying they would be more likely to vote for a Democratic challenger in 2006 while 36 percent would vote for DeLay. The telephone poll in the 22nd Congressional District of Texas had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.