Judge in DeLay case weighs dismissal


AUSTIN, TEXAS -- A judge heard arguments yesterday over whether the money-laundering and conspiracy case against Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, should be dismissed - with the defense asserting that the charges are flawed and the prosecution arguing that the powerful lawmaker should be held accountable for circumventing election laws.

DeLay is charged with illegally funneling corporate campaign contributions to Republican candidates in Texas' 2002 legislative races. He appeared in court with his wife at his side but did not make any statements.

Judge Pat Priest said he likely would issue a ruling in two weeks. If the case goes to trial, it probably would not start before next year, he said.

Under House rules, DeLay had to relinquish his post as majority leader when he was indicted in September. If the case is thrown out or resolved in DeLay's favor before Congress reconvenes in January, he could regain that position.

At issue is $190,000 in corporate donations given to an arm of the Republican National Committee by DeLay's political action committee, Texas for a Republican Majority. Soon after, the RNC contributed the same amount to seven Texas candidates.

The direct use of corporate money in state campaigns is illegal in Texas.

Lawyers for DeLay and his co-defendants - Republican fundraisers John Colyandro and Jim Ellis - said yesterday that the Texas candidates had received money from a separate RNC account funded by private, not corporate, donors.

"The truth is, it was individually donated," said Dick DeGuerin, DeLay's lawyer.

The defense also argued that the conspiracy charges were based on a law not on the books until 2003, a year after the donations took place. In addition, they said, state money-laundering statutes at the time applied only to coin and paper money, not checks.

In DeLay's case, "there will be no proof there was any cash money involved," DeGuerin said.

But prosecutor Rick Reed said that state law long has defined conspiracy as an agreement to commit any felony and that the 2003 law was merely a clarification.

And Texas doesn't claim that the funds given to the legislative candidates were exactly the same money donated by corporations. Rather, Reed said yesterday, the transaction was illegal because the political action committee had solicited contributions from corporations by entering into a "negotiated swap": Texas for a Republican Majority would donate money to the RNC with the understanding that the funds would eventually go to candidates supported by the group, Reed said.

Priest, a semiretired judge from San Antonio, replaced the first judge assigned to the case - who was removed at DeLay's request because of his contributions to Democratic candidates.

DeLay's attorneys, saying he cannot get a fair hearing in Austin, also are seeking to move the trial to his more conservative home county of Fort Bend, southwest of Houston.

Lianne Hart writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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