AUSTIN, Texas — Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay will get his long-awaited trial in Texas ahead of two co-defendants, a judge said Tuesday, five years after prosecutors first accused him of illegally funneling campaign money.
DeLay was indicted in 2005 on charges that he illegally sent $190,000 in corporate money through the Republican National Committee to help elect GOP Texas legislative candidates in 2002. He pleaded not guilty to money laundering and conspiracy charges and says he's done nothing wrong.
"I've been asking for a trial now for five years. Finally I'm getting a trial," DeLay told reporters outside the courtroom in Austin after the judge's decision.
Senior Judge Pat Priest did not set a trial date but said DeLay would be tried before his co-defendants, noting that DeLay had been demanding a trial since his indictment.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that they'll press lesser charges of election code violations against co-defendants John Colyandro and Jim Ellis – essentially severing their cases from DeLay's.
Defense attorneys also asked that Priest throw out the charges against the three men, arguing that then-District Attorney Ronnie Earle did not act properly in seeking the indictments in 2005. The judge, who closed some of Tuesday's court sessions to the public because he said they dealt with secret grand jury proceedings, did not rule on the defense request. Earlier in the day, he rejected other motions to dismiss charges.
Five years ago, Priest did throw out a conspiracy charge against the three men on a legal technicality.
DeLay began pressing for an immediate trial in late 2005 to try to save his leadership post in Congress. He resigned in 2006 from the suburban Houston congressional seat in Sugar Land that he had held for two decades.
"This is a political maneuver by a rogue district attorney, and I had to leave Congress because of it. And if I'd have gotten my trial speedily like I think I'm entitled to, I may still be in Congress, and I may still be in the leadership in Congress," DeLay said.
He said his next goal is to get his trial moved to his home county, conservative Fort Bend in the Houston area, where he says he's more likely to get a fair jury than in liberal Austin.
DeLay's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, began laying the groundwork for his change of venue argument by calling to the witness stand a longtime Austin attorney who is a Democrat and said DeLay wouldn't be able to get a fair trial in Travis County, where so many people didn't like his role in congressional redistricting.
"If you had a popularity contest he would come out on the bottom," said Broadus Spivey, a former president of the State Bar of Texas who has selected juries in hundreds of cases.
The pretrial hearing continues Wednesday.
DeLay, 63, arrived smiling at the Travis County criminal courts building Tuesday morning. The former national Republican leader then sat intently listening to hours of tedious legal arguments. During breaks in the court proceeding, he chuckled and chatted casually about his short stint last year on the television show "Dancing With the Stars."
Once known as "The Hammer" for his heavy-handed style, DeLay learned just last week that the Justice Department was ending a federal investigation into his ties to disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff without filing any charges against the former congressman.
Defense attorneys argued that the indictments in Texas should be thrown out because of "outrageous government conduct."
DeGuerin said Earle shopped among grand juries seeking quick indictments and didn't provide grand jurors with all the information they should have been given. Ellis' attorney, Jonathan Pauerstein, said Earle demonstrated "highly inappropriate conduct" by doing magazine interviews and going on television programs such as "60 Minutes" in "self-aggrandizing" fashion to talk about politics.
But prosecutor Holly Taylor argued that Earle did not step out of bounds when he spoke publicly about the case. She said a district attorney is permitted to keep the public informed and warn of a public danger and said Earle prosecuted Democrats as well as Republicans.
Priest rejected some earlier motions Tuesday by all three defendants to toss out the indictments for an assortment of legal reasons.
"Generally speaking, the defense is standing in a deep hole with a very short stick on all these issues," Priest said.
If convicted of the money laundering charge, DeLay could face five to 99 years, or life, in prison. A money laundering conspiracy charge included in that count could carry a prison term of two to 20 years, according to current District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.