When House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) was indicted by a Travis County grand jury in September 2005 for allegedly conspiring to sway Texas state elections with corporate money, the longtime GOP lawmaker said the charges were a “sham” and an act of “political retribution” by Democrats that wouldn’t stand up in court.
“I have done nothing wrong,” DeLay told reporters at the time. “I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House.”
Yet DeLay – once known as “The Hammer” because of the vast power he wielded – was forced to step down as majority leader. Five years later, in 2010, he was convicted of the charges after an excruciatingly long trial and appeal process that left his political career in shambles.
DeLay’s conviction was overturned in September 2013 by the Texas appellate court, as The Washington Post and others have reported; but even now, prosecutors are exploring an appeal.
The demise of an influential Republican politician is a cautionary tale for Gov. Rick Perry, who was indicted by another Travis County grand jury for allegedly abusing the power of his office by trying to coerce a public official into resigning.
Perry – the longest serving Texas governor who is trying to revive his presidential prospects after a disastrous run in 2012 – has dismissed the two indictments as a politically motivated farce that will fall apart under court scrutiny. Rather than shrink from the indictments, Perry has embraced them as a badge of honor as he tries to drum up support within his party’s conservative base. With many conservatives and even some Democrats agreeing that the indictments are dubious, Perry has begun to rekindle interest among voters in a few battleground states.
Last Friday, he was greeted warmly by business leaders in Portsmouth, N.H., The Washington Post reported. “Beyond Texas, conservative activists and lawmakers are rallying to his side, calling him the victim of a politically motivated attack,” The Post noted.
Just how far he can ride the indictments to glory remains to be seen – especially if the case drags on into the presidential campaign season next year. While Perry’s legal team is seeking to have the indictments dismissed, the legal case could end up consuming enormous amounts of time and money.
Dick DeGuerin, a prominent Houston criminal lawyer who defended DeLay, said in an interview Monday that a criminal case of this nature could not only complicate a politician’s ambitions and plans – “Hell, it can destroy him.”
If Perry’s lawyers get the indictments tossed out in short order, the governor would be home free with little residual political baggage, DeGuerin said. “I think there’s going to be pre-trial motions filed that will end up disposing of the case,” DeGuerin said.
In the meantime, he said, Perry has shrewdly used the controversy to gain a political “bounce,” adding, “Suddenly he’s national news again.”
Yet there can be real danger if the preliminary court rulings don’t go in his favor, or if the case goes to trial. “I bet you a dollar to a doughnut hole the case will get tossed,” said DeGuerin. “The question is whether either side will appeal, whatever the ruling is on the motions that are filed. If it terminates the prosecution, the prosecutor can appeal. If it fails to terminate the prosecution, Perry can appeal. Neither side is forced to appeal, but they can. And that would prolong it.”
Nobody expects the Perry case to drag on for years, as it did for DeLay. Delay initially faced trial with two co-defendants who insisted on filing numerous pre-trial appeals. The charges against DeLay – involving conspiracy to launder money and violate election laws – were more serious and substantive than those against Perry, DeGuerin said.
Yet the abuse of office charge against Perry is a first-degree felony punishable by 5 to 99 years, while the charge of coercion of a public servant is a third-degree felony that carries a prison term of 2 to 10 years, according to The Houston Chronicle.
Perry’s indictment last Friday – just five months short of the end of his 14-year career as governor – caught many by surprise. The charge of abuse of official capacity stems from his threat to veto funding for the Travis County District Attorney office’s Public Integrity Unit unless Democratic District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg agreed to resign. Perry contended she had disgraced the office after being arrested and convicted of drunk driving.
When Lehmberg refused to step down, Perry vetoed the $7.5 million in funding for the Public Integrity Unit. A political watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, filed an ethics complaint against Perry and a special prosecutor convened a grand jury that ultimately handed down the indictments. The same watchdog group went after DeLay and obtained indictments.
Perry told a gathering in Washington last week he is “very confident” he’ll be exonerated. He said the veto was consistent with his powers under Texas statutes, adding, “I intend to defend our constitution and stand up for the rule of law.”
Both Perry and DeLay have had their problems with Travis County – a liberal Democratic stronghold (including Austin) in a conservative Republican state. Both men say they’ve been subjected to Democratic prosecutorial overreach.
“There is no doubt [Perry’s case] is politically motivated,” former House leader DeLay told Fox News on August 19. “Once again, the district attorney of Travis County presented a case, not unlike mine, that was very weak…. It’s a conspiracy to use the legal system to politicize politics.”
Members of the grand jury strongly disputed the charge, according to The Houston Chronicle.
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