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The Rise and Fall of Tom DeLay

November 25, 2010 at 4:37 PM EST
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On Wednesday a Texas jury found former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) guilty of laundering corporate money into political donations. Texas reporter Laylan Copelin discusses DeLay's fall from leading the U.S. House to being convicted of money laundering.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A little more than five years ago, Tom DeLay was one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington. Late yesterday, a Texas jury found him guilty of laundering corporate money into political donations.

The verdict came last night at a courthouse in Austin, Texas. Moments after it was read, Tom DeLay remained defiant.

TOM DELAY (R), former House majority leader: This is an abuse of power.

It’s a miscarriage of justice. And I still maintain that I am innocent, that the criminalization of politics undermines our very system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Prosecutors charge that in 2002, DeLay funneled $190,000 of campaign money to Texas Republican statehouse candidates using his political action committee. The money moved through the Republican National Committee, the charge went, in order to skirt a Texas state ban on direct corporate contributions to state campaigns. Those candidates helped Republicans take majority control of the legislature, and thus power to control redrawing Texas congressional districts. As a result, in 2004, Republicans picked up six more U.S. House seats from Texas.

Once one of the most powerful men in Washington, DeLay was known as “The Hammer” for his hard-driving leadership and prodigious fundraising. A former exterminator from suburban Houston, elected in 1984, he rose steadily through House ranks, becoming majority leader in 2003.

He resigned his leadership position two years later after his indictment by the Texas grand jury amid allegations that he had also violated House ethics rules in receiving all-expense-paid trips from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. DeLay continued to serve in Congress until 2006 –

TOM DELAY: If given the chance to do it all again, there’s only one thing I would change. I would fight even harder.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But gave up his seat in the face of a long-shot re-election campaign.

We get more now on the rise and fall of Tom DeLay from Laylan Copelin of “The Austin-American Statesman.” He joins us from Austin.

Laylan Copelin, thank you very much. You were in the courtroom yesterday. Tell us, what was Tom DeLay’s reaction?

LAYLAN COPELIN, “Austin American-Statesman”: He was definitely stunned, as was his lawyer. I think they really thought that they were going to win the case, although when it went into the third day, I think the mood started to change.

But Tom DeLay was always smiling and putting forth a brave face, but once he stood up and heard “guilty,” the smile left his face and he obviously was stunned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us — I mean, profile for us the case that was presented. Was there a sense, listening to the prosecution, that they put a case together that was going to result in a conviction?

LAYLAN COPELIN: Well, it was an extraordinarily complicated case, largely circumstantial. There was hundreds of exhibits, mostly e-mails and memos about his political organization that was DeLay’s idea, and that was Texans for Republicans Majority. It was a political committee that was out there raising money.

DeLay raised a lot of money from corporations from this committee. And the evidence was, you know, 11 days of testimony and hundreds of exhibits. And the law was – obviously, the jury struggled with the law, because there was a complicated money laundering case. And it boiled down to, what did Tom DeLay know and when did he know it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what was his defense throughout?

LAYLAN COPELIN: He had a couple.

Number one, that he was primarily hands-off with this committee, that his associates, John Colyandro in Austin, and Jim Ellis in Washington, D.C., that they were doing all the parts with the transaction, and that he only learned about it later on.

And secondly, he always contended that it was a legal transaction, that other people, particularly political parties, had done it before. And that was his defense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were telling us earlier that it was Tom DeLay’s own words and own actions that really, in the end, helped do him in here.

LAYLAN COPELIN: Right. On the third day, you know, everyone was trying to read the tea leaves as the jurors would send in questions. And early on, it was about the law and so forth, and then it started asking about facts and so forth, issues.

And right before they came back with their verdict, I would say two or three hours before they came back with the verdict, the last three things that they asked for was his interview with prosecutors in 2005, his interview with me during a break in the trial, and his interview with Fox News back in 2005. And because he didn’t testify, I think they went back and looked at those interviews to see, what did Tom DeLay say he knew and when did he know it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now that he’s been convicted, Laylan Copelin, and the sentencing comes in December, what are the possibilities then?

LAYLAN COPELIN: Well, technically, he could get anything from two years probation to 99 years. He would be a first-time offender. I don’t foresee prison time.

But I think his bigger problem is the prosecution has already subpoenaed people who used to work with Tom DeLay and then later worked with Jack Abramoff, the well-known Washington lobbyist who just got out of prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to bribing public officials.

So you could see that sentencing hearing sort of become kind of a public airing of Tom DeLay’s inner workings of his political circle. And all the allegations that had swirled around him for years, that could get played out again unless the judge tells prosecutors he didn’t want to hear it, because it’s the judge who is going to set the punishment, not a injury.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When all is said and done, how much of a comedown for Tom DeLay is this?

LAYLAN COPELIN: Well, this has been a long fall, because at the time, he was considered the second most powerful Texan in Washington, second only to President Bush. I saw him come down there in 2003, and he personally directed the Texas state legislature on how to draw the congressional districts in what was a very controversial mid-decade redistricting.

That was back when the Texas Democrats fled the state and tried to boycott and stop it. And so it was a polarizing event.

He was at the height of his powers then, and he was riding very high. And then he was indicted, and he was forced to resign, and then he later retired from Congress.

And last night, after the conviction, if he did what he told me he was going to be doing, he was driving home from Austin in his RV back to Sugarland, and I’m sure it was a long, lonely ride, realizing that he’s a convicted felon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Laylan Copelin of “The Austin American-Statesman.” Thank you very much for talking with us.

LAYLAN COPELIN: Thank you.