Point Austin: The Chosen One

Tom DeLay's demons finally come home to roost

Point Austin
In the end, the Apples & Oranges Theory was defeated by the Bean Theory.

That's one way of explaining the guilty verdicts in the trial of Tom DeLay. DeLay's attorney Dick DeGuerin had kept an apple and an orange on his defense table, to remind his team, and the jury, of his argument that no corporate money had been laundered by his client because, DeGuerin insisted, the two piles of $190,000 under review were "different money." To compare the $190,000 in corporate money – collected by the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee and sent to the Republican National Committee – to the $190,000 the RNC returned from individual campaign contributions, DeGuerin told the jury, is like comparing "apples and oranges."

Judge Pat Priest, on the other hand, in rejecting DeGuerin's early motion that he dismiss the charges, described money as "absolutely fungible." "It's like beans," Priest said. "I don't care if you put it in one pocket, and then take the money out of the other pocket." The Bean Theory was never addressed to the jurors, but it appears in the end they understood it – that the transfer of TRMPAC funds had in fact been an attempt to circumvent longstanding Texas law against the direct or indirect corporate funding of candidates. Accordingly, on the day before Thanks­giving they convicted DeLay of both money-laundering and conspiracy to money-launder. He awaits sentencing by Judge Priest – whose options range from probation to 99 years in prison.

The jurors took the better part of three days to agree, and for a time it appeared they were wandering in a legal desert. On Tuesday, they twice asked the judge if the corporate money could be transferred illegally if it had originally been collected legally – and all Priest could do was refer them to his jury instructions, as answering that question was essentially their central responsibility. DeLay's team was comforted by the implication that jurors might doubt the premise of the prosecution's charges. The corporate donations were in fact collected legally; DeLay's crime was to launder that money in order to put it to an illegal purpose.

Eventually, the evidence the jurors requested for review led them where they needed to go. On Wed­nesday, they asked if a conspirator must be part of a conspiracy from the beginning of the crime – and Priest was able to answer that a conspiracy could be joined at any point along its development. Suddenly it was the prosecutors who were optimistic, for the question suggested that the jury was finally following DeLay's actual trail.

The Hammer in Charge

If DeGuerin needed someone to blame, he could look no further than his client. Not only had DeLay told prosecutors back in 2005 that he had known about the money exchange before it was accomplished – an admission replayed for the jury's edification – but during a break in the trial, he told Statesman reporter Laylan Copelin that he "could have stopped" the deal had he chosen to. Prosecutors wasted no time summoning Copelin and his recording to let DeLay dig his own hole a little deeper. While DeGuerin was valiantly trying to persuade the court that his client was simply a "figurehead" who barely knew what TRMPAC was doing, DeLay himself couldn't refrain from announcing he was always in charge of his own operation.

Though they had long been subpoenaed as evidence, DeLay's complete calendars of the TRMPAC period didn't show up in court until near the end of the trial – to DeGuerin's discomfort and the prosecution's great interest. The calendars reflected that DeLay was meeting regularly with the TRMPAC managers, including at the precise time the money exchange was in progress. DeLay's claim of ignorance made little sense.

The belated calendar revelations also gave Assistant District Attorney Gary Cobb another avenue of attack in his closing – essentially that DeLay's claim was simply the cover story of a cornered criminal. DeGuerin had claimed the absence of DeLay's name from TRMPAC organizational documents reflected a cursory involvement; Cobb countered that DeLay's name was also missing from the papers of his federal PAC, Amer­icans for a Republican Majority, of which DeLay always proudly claimed ownership. Dropping into vernacular, Cobb dismissed DeLay's claims of ignorance. "That's kind of how criminals do," Cobb said. "I can tell you from 20 years experience, street crime or political crime – that's how they do."

Angels and Demons

Until Cobb's closing, the prosecution's case had lacked a narrative to respond to DeGuerin's insistence that the entire TRMPAC episode was just "politics as usual," that DeLay hadn't participated, and that there was no crime anyway. DeGuerin regularly presented a slide declaring, "NO CORPOR­ATE MONEY WENT TO CANDIDATES IN TEXAS," to which Cobb offered his sardonic response, "because it was laundered." The transaction only came to light because, for that one year, the Internal Revenue Service had required PACs to record such expenditures. Like Al Capone, Cobb said, DeLay had been undone by his accurate bookkeeping. "One thing people learned from the FBI and The Untouchables," said Cobb, "you can go out there and commit a lot of crimes, but you do not mess with the IRS."

Cobb made the courtroom abundantly aware that he considered the onetime political kingmaker DeLay simply "a criminal." He reminded the jury of the motive – congressional redistricting – and embedded that motive in DeLay's notorious vainglory: "Can you imagine how galling it was to him, one of the most powerful men in the country ... but you can't even control your own state?" If the jury needed a convincing motivational narrative as it entered its deliberations, Cobb certainly provided one.

On Thanksgiving eve, a visibly stunned DeLay heard the judge read the verdicts: guilty on both counts. The day before, DeLay was citing scripture (Romans 8:28) to suggest he was "chosen by the Lord," and neither "demons nor angels nor district attorneys" could harm him. After the verdict, all he could do was snarl that on appeal, "hopefully we can get this before people who understand the law." Since the Texas appeals courts are heavily and ideologically Republican, it's likely they'll understand the politics more profoundly. In the end, DeLay may well skate, but his remaining hopes of a personal political revival, as a convicted felon (even temporarily), appear thoroughly dashed.

As Cobb concluded, "Our prosecution was opened because somebody came along and determined they could beat that law. If you do not hold Tom DeLay accountable, you can be certain other people will come along and do the same thing."

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Tom DeLay Trial, Tom DeLay, Dick DeGuerin, Pat Priest, TRMPAC, Gary Cobb

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