Republican Tom DeLay danced the cha-cha and the tango on TV, but he's tiptoeing through a legal web as his criminal case crawls through the courts in Texas.
The former U.S. House majority leader who's competing on ABC's hit show "Dancing With the Stars" was indicted four years ago on charges of money laundering and conspiracy allegedly connected to 2002 state legislative elections. His case now hinges on how an appeals court rules on legal questions raised by DeLay's two indicted associates.
It could be months before the case goes to trial, if it does at all.
"Being in this limbo has been very tough on him," said DeLay's Houston-based attorney, Dick DeGuerin.
While he waits for the court's ruling, the former congressman _ known as "The Hammer" for his tenacity and toughness in politics _ is shaking his hips with dance partner Cheryl Burke. He's made it through two rounds of judging in the dance-off, despite a foot injury and some over-the-top moves to the tune "Wild Thing."
"I have to say I nailed it," DeLay said after an early dance round. "I felt good. My hips were working."
DeLay, who has claimed he did nothing wrong, hardly appears worried about a possible criminal conviction. Once one of the most powerful men in politics, he's taken a lighthearted approach to the competition, at times winking and pointing to Burke and the judges. The next round is Monday.
Yet DeGuerin says DeLay is frustrated the criminal charges have lingered so long and is trying to move ahead with his life. He's showing he has guts by in appearing on a show "where the panel delights in insulting you in front of millions of people. He's got a thick skin," DeGuerin said.
Prosecutors aren't saying much about DeLay's TV gig.
"I have not seen it," assistant district attorney Bryan Case, head of the office's appellate division, said as the second week of competition was about to get under way. Case said he doubts DeLay's appearance on the show would have an impact on a trial. "I don't foresee it as affecting the case."
DeGuerin said jurors likely would not be persuaded by the show, other than perhaps wanting DeLay's autograph.
DeLay, Jim Ellis and John Colyandro are accused of money laundering in connection with $190,000 in campaign contributions made to Republican legislative candidates in 2002 when they worked to install a GOP majority in the Texas House of Representatives. The 2003 legislative session was the first time Republicans controlled the House since Reconstruction.
DeLay, who resigned from Congress in 2006, claims the criminal charges against him were pressed by a Democrat with a vendetta, former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Earle frequently pointed out that he prosecuted Democrats and Republicans.
Prosecutors alleged DeLay and his two co-defendants funneled corporate money through the Republican National Committee then back to state legislative candidates in violation of state law.
DeGuerin says DeLay wasn't involved in the contributions. And, all the defense lawyers contend there was nothing illegal about the flow of the money.
"Really, there's no crime. If we ever get to trial that would be very obvious," DeGuerin said.
The defendants have slowly knocked down pieces of the prosecutors' case in appellate courts. DeLay and the other defendants won a lengthy fight to throw out a charge alleging conspiracy to violate state election laws. They successfully claimed the law in question didn't exist in 2002.
What remain are charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The money laundering charge is punishable by five years to life in prison. Conspiracy to commit money laundering carries a possible two-year term.
Colyandro and Ellis have pleaded not guilty and argue that at the time of the election the state's money laundering law applied only to cash, not checks. The campaign contribuion money was a check.
The regional 3rd Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the money laundering law, but agreed it applied only to cash at that time. State law has since been changed to specifically state checks are included.
The case is now before the nine-member Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest state criminal court.
"This case has had a very twisted history, and up and down and around, like the Mississippi River. It's taken quite a while," said prosecutor Case. It isn't likely to go to trial until 2010, "if it goes," he said.
Judge Pat Priest, the presiding trial judge, is awaiting the appellate ruling.
If the appeals court decides the money laundering law applied to checks, the case could move to trial. But prosecutor Case acknowledged if the court determines checks were not covered by the law, the defendants would have strong ammunition to seek to dismiss the charges.
DeLay's attorney said he wanted to go to trial four years ago to clear his name.
"It's taken an inordinate length of time," DeGuerin said. "He's had to go on with his life."
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