Former House majority leader Tom DeLay will be back in a Texas courtroom on Tuesday where he faces money laundering and conspiracy charges - days after learning that the U.S. Justice Department ended its own investigation without filing any criminal charges against him.
The Texas hearing brings DeLay and his two co-defendants one step closer to a possible trial on accusations that they illegally funneled corporate money to help elect Republicans to the Texas Legislature eight years ago.
The charges in Texas against DeLay - once known as "the Hammer" for his heavy-handed style - cost him his congressional leadership post. He pressed in late 2005 for a quick trial because he said he would be cleared, but a swift conclusion never came. He resigned from the U.S. House in 2006, but has remained in the limelight and even did a stint on the television show "Dancing With the Stars."
"Tom DeLay never should have been indicted," DeLay's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said Monday. "This was a political indictment, and it was because he had been so effective as a Republican leader. But he didn't do anything wrong."
Last week, DeLay's lawyers revealed the U.S. Justice Department informed them it was ending a separate investigation into DeLay's ties to disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff without filing any criminal charges against DeLay. The former suburban Houston congressman said he always knew that would be the outcome. He showed that same confidence when referring to his pending state criminal case.
"I've been waiting for five years to go to trial," DeLay told reporters. "I'm ready to go to trial."
DeLay said Texas prosecutors have made no offer of a plea bargain. Prosecutors did not immediately return calls to The Associated Press on Monday.
On Tuesday, Senior Judge Pat Priest will consider the remaining questions in the marathon case against DeLay, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis before trial: Will the case be moved from Austin? Should the defendants be tried separately? And was there prosecutorial misconduct that could get the whole case thrown out?
DeLay, Colyandro and Ellis are accused by prosecutors of illegally funneling $190,000 in corporate money through the Republican National Committee to help elect GOP state legislative candidates in 2002. That year, Texas Republicans won a majority in the Texas House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War era, giving them control in 2003 and allowing the influential DeLay to engineer a GOP redistricting map.
Democratic lawmakers fled the state to boycott the redistricting votes, but Republican legislators prevailed and Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed the plan into law.
The defendants contend they did nothing wrong in their dealings with the Texans for a Republican Majority political committee and that the charges were politically motivated by then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. Since the 2005 indictments, Earle has been succeeded by his top aide, Rosemary Lehmberg.
The money that went to Texas Republican candidates from the RNC was collected lawfully from around the country, DeGuerin said.
No trial date has been set, and it's not clear whether Priest will rule immediately on the questions before the court this week.
In addition to claiming that prosecutors behaved improperly and "wrangled an indictment" out of a grand jury in 2005 - an accusation prosecutors deny - defense lawyers contend their clients cannot get a fair trial in Democratic-leaning Travis County because of the heavy interest in the case. They want the trial moved elsewhere.
DeGuerin said DeLay remains front-page news in Austin and that a local political cartoonist continually derides DeLay. He said DeLay has been portrayed as Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West.
"Austin is nothing if it's not politically active, one of the most political atmospheres in the country," DeGuerin said, noting that numerous people and organizations in the city speak out about the case. "They're almost all anti-Tom DeLay - he's radioactive."
Prosecutors say media attention and publicity don't automatically establish a prejudice or require a change a venue. As recently as Friday, prosecutors were submitting multiple affidavits to the court from Travis County residents who say they believe DeLay and his associates can get a fair trial.
If convicted, the defendants could face five years to life in prison on the money laundering charge. Conspiracy to commit money laundering carries a possible two-year prison term.
A previous charge alleging conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws was dismissed because the law didn't take effect until after the alleged events.