The Austin Chronicle

DeLay Trial: Jury Hanging Fire

By Michael King, November 26, 2010, News

As the Chronicle went to press Tuesday on its early Thanksgiving schedule, the jurors in the money-laundering and conspiracy trial of former U.S. House GOP honcho Tom DeLay had gone home without a verdict, after informing the judge they were "making progress." During deliberations that began Monday afternoon, the jurors had posed questions to the judge that suggested they were divided or confused on the basic legal issues. The judge declined to answer beyond pointing to his formal charge on the law, delivered to the jury before closing arguments.

DeLay's nearly monthlong trial ended Mon­day with closing arguments by prosecutors and defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, who described the charges as purely political and his client as a "figurehead" and "headliner" who was barely aware of the activities of Texans for a Republican Major­ity, the political action committee that in 2002 sent $190,000 in "soft" (corporate) money to the Republican National State Elec­tion Com­mit­tee in return for $190,000 in "hard" (individual) contributions sent to seven GOP candidates for the Texas House. Direct or indirect corporate contributions to candidates are illegal in Texas, and trial testimony turned on whether the "money swap" was a common, legal political practice (as the defense claimed) or an unprecedented attempt to circumvent 100-year-old Texas campaign finance law (as prosecutors charged).

On Monday prosecutor Beverly Mathews opened with a detailed recounting of the steps in DeLay's alleged conspiracy to launder the corporate money, replaying sections of DeLay's 2005 taped admission that he knew of the exchange in advance, as well as his statement to Statesman reporter Laylin Copelin last week that he "could have stopped" the exchange before it occurred. That seemed to contradict DeGuerin's insistence that DeLay had very little to do with TRMPAC, and both Mathews and Assistant District Attorney Gary Cobb cited evidence from DeLay's calendars that reflected direct involvement in TRMPAC meetings, including at the time of the exchange. Moreover, asked Math­ews, "Do you think it's just a coincidence that virtually every corporation that contributed to TRMPAC got a meeting with Tom DeLay?"

In closing, DeGuerin reiterated his refrain that the two contributing streams were "not the same money," holding up to the jury an apple and an orange and insisting that an orange given to one person is not the same as an apple that person passes to another. "I believe it was lawful," he said in comparing the money swap, "because it's not the same money."

Responding to DeGuerin's insistence that "no corporate money went to candidates in Tex­as," Cobb responded acerbically, "because it was laundered." His closing was blistering, comparing DeLay to common "street criminals" who commit crimes by proxy while obscuring the evidence, and pointing to detailed calendars (produced by the defense only late in the trial) that confirm DeLay's meetings with TRMPAC principals. Cobb rejected DeGuerin's claim that the charges were political – "We prosecute Democrats as well as Repub­lic­ans," he said – and argued that the money-laundering was caught only because of a one-time requirement that PACs report their corporate contributions to the Internal Reve­nue Service. "One thing we learned from Al Capone and the Untouchables," said Cobb, "is that you don't mess with the IRS."

Cobb's vigorous attempt to portray DeLay as a common criminal (the charges are third-degree felonies, eligible for as much as life in prison) made a strong impression in the courtroom – DeLay later said that it proved the case is simply "political" – but it's not clear he persuaded the jurors. In a written inquiry to the judge, they asked, "Can it constitute money laundering if the money wasn't procured by illegal means originally?," suggesting that despite the prosecution's arguments, at least some were wary of concluding the money swap was criminal if the original contributions were legal. Over the prosecution's objection but with the approval of the defense, the judge declined to answer, simply referring the jury to his formal instructions.

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