AUSTIN, Texas — Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay argued throughout his trial that the deck was stacked against him by a politically motivated prosecutor and a jury from the most Democratic city in one of the most Republican states.
But after DeLay's conviction Wednesday on money laundering and conspiracy charges, some legal experts say the edge may now shift to the Republican who represented a conservative Houston suburb for 22 years.
Before DeLay's inevitable appeal, which his lawyers predict will be a far friendlier process than his trial, he faces sentencing next month from Senior Judge Pat Priest. While technically the money laundering charge carries a punishment of up to life in prison, the judge has wide latitude and could end up just giving him probation. "It is absolutely impossible he would get anywhere near life," said Philip Hilder, a Houston criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. "It would be a period of a few years, if he gets prison."
Barry Pollack, a Washington-based lawyer who represents clients in white-collar and government corruption cases, said the judge may not feel the need to throw the book at DeLay, figuring the conviction itself is severe punishment for someone who once ascended to the No. 2 post in the House of Representatives.
For example, as a convicted felon, DeLay won't be able to run again for public office or even be able to cast a vote until he completes his sentence.
"I think in a lot of cases a judge wants to make an example, but I don't see that happening here," Pollack said.
Prosecutors accused DeLay of conspiring with two associates to use his Texas-based political action committee to send $190,000 in corporate money to an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee. The RNC then sent the same amount to seven Texas statehouse candidates. Under Texas law, corporate money can't go directly to political campaigns.
The money helped Republicans take control of the Texas House in 2002, and once there, they were able to push through a DeLay-engineered congressional redistricting plan that helped the party take control of Congress in 2004, prosecutors said. DeLay that year was elected majority whip, the chamber's third in command, and ascended to majority leader eight years later.
DeLay opted to be sentenced by Priest, a Democrat, rather than a jury in heavily Democratic Austin. Hilder said that was a wise move, particularly if DeLay thinks he might be able to get by with just a probation sentence. "The judge may be more receptive than a jury," Hilder said. "He obviously thinks he will get a fairer shake with the judge. The jury more likely would sentence him to prison time."
The sentencing hearing is set to begin Dec. 20.