DeLay jurors weigh mostly circumstantial evidence

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Prosecutors in ex-U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay’s money laundering trial made a final pitch to jurors Monday to connect the dots among the mounds of circumstantial evidence and find him guilty.

DeLay’s attorneys said prosecutors needed jurors to infer DeLay’s guilt because they’d presented no proof the ex-lawmaker committed a crime.

Jurors deliberated for about four hours after closing arguments without reaching a verdict. They will resume their deliberations Tuesday.

They sent several questions Monday to Senior Judge Pat Priest, including a request for clarification on the definition of money laundering. Priest told jurors he would answer their questions about money laundering on Tuesday.

Prosecutors had focused on summarizing the volumes of e-mails and other documents they presented during DeLay’s three-week trial in an effort to prove DeLay used his political action committee to illegally channel $190,000 in corporate money into 2002 Texas legislative races through a money swap.

DeLay, a once powerful but polarizing Houston-area congressman, has denied wrongdoing. The Republican is charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors Gary Cobb and Beverly Mathews said the circumstantial evidence in the case, when put together, showed DeLay took part in a scheme with two associates, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, to get corporate money to seven Texas House candidates. Under Texas law, corporate donations can’t go directly to political campaigns.

“What was Tom DeLay’s motive to do this? His motive was redistricting, pure and simple,” Mathews said.

Prosecutors claim the corporate money helped Republicans elect candidates and take control of the Texas House. That enabled the GOP majority to push through a Delay-engineered congressional redistricting plan that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004 — and strengthened DeLay’s political power.

Prosecutors say the corporate money was laundered through an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee, or RNC. The money was exchanged for the same amount in individual donations, which can be used in Texas campaigns.

“You can logically infer anything from the evidence. That is what circumstantial evidence is. You don’t have to have an eyewitness to figure out what went on here,” Mathews said.

But Dick DeGuerin, DeLay’s lead attorney, restated what he had often said throughout the trial: that prosecutors had failed to prove the ex-lawmaker committed a crime and the money swap was legal.

Throughout his closing arguments, DeGuerin repeated one phrase in particular: no corporate money went to candidates in Texas. He even included the sentence — in bold, black letters — in a slide show he presented to jurors.

DeGuerin argued DeLay was being punished for his political views and that prosecutors tried to “make politics dirty.” Trial testimony from prosecution witnesses often focused on how money is raised in political campaigns, particularly from corporations.

“I don’t agree with tearing down someone because of what their beliefs are,” DeGuerin said.

The case had been originally brought by a Democratic district attorney who is now retired.

The strongest evidence prosecutors presented was an audio interview in which DeLay said he knew beforehand about the money swap. DeLay says he misspoke in the interview with prosecutors in 2005, just before his indictment.

DeLay has said Ellis told him about the money swap on Oct. 2, 2002, after it had been approved. At trial, prosecutors focused on a Sept. 11, 2002, meeting Ellis had at DeLay’s Washington office. Prosecutors told jurors that an hour before Ellis was in DeLay’s office that day, he received a blank check from the PAC’s accountant in Austin. That check was later sent to the RNC and filled out for $190,000. Two former DeLay staff members testified DeLay would have been too busy to be at the Sept. 11 meeting.

During closing arguments, both prosecutors and defense attorneys played excerpts from the audio interview. Prosecutors said it proved in DeLay’s own words that he knew about the money swap before it happened. DeGuerin argued it proved DeLay didn’t propose the transaction and had little if any involvement in how the PAC was run.

Prosecutors presented more than 30 witnesses during the trial that started Nov. 1. In contrast, only five witnesses took the stand in DeLay’s defense.

At trial, prosecutors also presented records showing the seven Texas candidates got more donations from the RNC than all other state legislative candidates around the U.S.

The criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of DeLay’s ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, ended his 22-year political career representing suburban Houston. The Justice Department probe into DeLay’s ties to Abramoff ended without any charges filed against DeLay.

Ellis and Colyandro, who face lesser charges, will be tried later.

DeLay, whose nickname was “the Hammer” for his heavy-handed style, runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. In 2009, he appeared on ABC’s hit television show “Dancing With the Stars.”

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