Whatever happened to Tom DeLay, once the most hated, feared and combative member of Congress? The most powerful person in the House of Representatives left office after his indictment two and a half years ago. But his case has still not come to trial. Why not?
Who can forget Tom DeLay, the former exterminator they called "the Hammer" because he broke heads, made threats and did whatever else was necessary to drive the Bush administration's programs through the House of Representatives and punish those who dared oppose him? The 11-term Republican congressman from Texas rose to become the Majority Leader and the real power behind Speaker Dennis Hastert.
DeLay was deeply involved in what opponents dubbed Washington's "culture of corruption." He accepted over $70,000 in campaign contributions and other favors from jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Abramoff's clients and associates. DeLay made overseas trips paid for by Abramoff, his clients, foreign companies and other lobbyists, including a $70,000 golfing trip to Scotland, a visit to South Korea that cost $107,000, and a $57,000 jaunt to Russia.
DeLay has never been charged with a crime for his dealings with Abramoff, whom he once called "one of my dearest and closest friends." But two of his former congressional aides have pleaded guilty in the Abramoff scandals, and the lobbyist himself is serving six years for one fraud and has pleaded guilty in other cases to defrauding clients out of millions of dollars, conspiring to bribe public officials and tax evasion. In addition, DeLay was admonished three times by the House Ethics Committee on matters not involving Abramoff.
Much more serious are charges being pressed by a Texas prosecutor that destroyed DeLay's congressional career and still threaten him with jail time. The prosecutor is District Attorney Ronnie Earle of Travis County, which includes the state capital, Austin.
Two grand juries convened by Earle indicted DeLay on state charges in the fall of 2005. They accused him of violating Texas election law by conspiring to collect corporate contributions for one of his PACs, and laundering, and conspiring to launder, those donations to elect more Republicans to the state House of Representatives.
DeLay's successful effort helped elect 17 Republicans to the Texas House in 2002, giving his party control for the first time in more than a century. The legislators then helped pass DeLay's radical redistricting plan that added five more Texas Republican congressmen to the GOP majority two years later.
To raise money for the 2002 state House races, Texans for a Republican Majority, a political PAC that DeLay helped organize, collected $190,000 from corporations. In September 2002, DeLay's PAC sent the $190,000 to the Republican National Committee in Washington. Three weeks later, the RNC sent the exact same amount back to Texas, in contributions to GOP state House candidates.
Texas is one of 18 states where using corporate money in state election campaigns is illegal. DA Earle charged that DeLay was involved in efforts to get around the law. DeLay insists he's innocent and accuses Earle, a Democrat, of engaging in "personal revenge" against him for partisan political purposes, something Earle emphatically denies.
The indictment was calamitous for DeLay's political career. He was forced to step down as Majority Leader, resigned from Congress and declined to run for a twelfth term, fearing he might lose in 2006. In fact, his former seat was won by a Democrat. He was belligerent to the end, defending his intense partisanship as "not a symptom of democracy's weakness but of its health" in his farewell speech in Congress.
DeLay asked for a quick trial. But he hasn't gotten one, in part because of appeals. Texas courts threw out the charge that he and two associates conspired to violate state election law. But the courts are still considering appeals from the other two indicted with him for money laundering. The next decision on their appeals will almost certainly affect his case, and could be appealed further.
And even if they ultimately lose those appeals, the courts will then have to rule on motions by DeLay and the others accusing DA Earle of misconduct and asking for a change of venue from Austin, where, a defense lawyer says, people hate DeLay and other Republicans.
Underlying the money laundering charges is the law that makes corporate campaign contributions illegal in Texas. Both sides agree that DeLay's Texas PAC sent $190,000 in corporate donations to the Republican National Committee in September 2002, and the RNC returned the same amount in contributions to seven candidates for the state House of Representatives less than three weeks later.
In DeLay's case, a central question is when he learned of the money transactions. He has said publicly that he mistakenly told prosecutors at a meeting in August 2005 that he knew about his Texas PAC's check before it was sent to the RNC. "I misspoke one sentence and they have based all of this on one sentence," DeLay told Rush Limbaugh in a radio interview. He complained that DA Earle would not permit him to correct his error.
DeLay offered a slightly different account on Fox News Sunday. "I knew about this after it happened," he said, explaining he had learned his PAC had sent the $190,000 to the Republican National Committee, but before the RNC had sent $190,000 back in contributions to state House candidates.
Besides what he told prosecutors at the August 2005 meeting, and his public statements, it is not known what, if any, witnesses, documents or other evidence the DA has to support his case. DeLay was not under oath at the meeting. Calls and emails to Earle's spokesman were not returned.
The time-consuming appeals process makes it unlikely that DeLay's case will come to trial this year. So it's likely that he will outlast his accuser, since the 65-year-old Earle has announced he'll step down next January after 32 years on the job. His successor will be one of his assistant DAs who's been on DeLay's case for a long time. But whether that successor will pursue DeLay as vigorously as Earle has, remains to be seen.
DeLay remains a hero to many on the right. In February 2008, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, fans flocked around him and lined up half an hour early for his book-signing. His autobiography, "No Retreat, No Surrender: One American's Fight," was written with author Stephen Mansfield.
DeLay is also co-founder of the Coalition for a Conservative Majority, a fledgling right-wing effort to compete with left-wing groups like MoveOn. He told the Houston Chronicle that conservatives are "very energized, but they're looking for leadership." If he can manage to stay out of jail, DeLay might be happy to provide it.