Hammered: What Punishment Will Tom DeLay Get?

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Former Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay during a 2007 interview

Five years and a month ago, Tom DeLay, who was once House Majority leader, set the standard for jailhouse mug shots. Smiling widely, with a twinkle in his eye, he held a metal sign: "10-20-05, Thomas Dale DeLay, Money Laundering." Now, 1,861 days later, after an epic legal struggle, a retreat from Washington back to his constituency of Sugar Land, Texas, after one cha-cha in a leopard print vest on Season Nine of Dancing with the Stars — plus a stiff waltz, a fumbled tango and a hobbled samba — the smiling former Texas congressman, the man they called "The Hammer," has been found guilty as charged.

Much is being made of the possible punishment — one to 99 years in state prison on the money laundering charge, two to 20 on a conspiracy charge. But presiding Judge Pat Priest, a semi-retired special appointee who added to the musical theme by listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes as the jury deliberated, could very well give the fallen politician probation. Sentencing will begin on Dec. 20; and, so far, prosecutors have not specified how much jail time they will demand, only that the case was a "message from the people of Texas" who want "honesty and ethics" in their public officials, according to District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.

After almost 20 hours of deliberations that at several points appeared to be off track, an Austin jury found DeLay guilty of moving $190,000 in corporate donations through the Republican National Committee to a political action committee aimed at aiding GOP state legislative candidates. That push was allegedly part of DeLay's effort — a successful one — to control the congressional redistricting process.

After hearing the verdict, DeLay hugged his wife and weeping daughter and faced reporters outside the Austin courtroom where his case was decided. The broad smile that had accompanied him on perp walks and through the pain of dance-induced stress fractures was gone. DeLay struggled to smile, and his eyes reflected a caught-in-the-headlights look. Stammering slightly, DeLay said the trial had been "an abuse of power and a miscarriage of justice" and he vowed to battle on. "I praise the Lord for what's going on," DeLay said. "I am not going to blame anybody... maybe we can get it before people who understand the law."

During the almost 20 hours of deliberation, the jury appeared to be struggling with a case that was replete with circumstantial evidence. It sent out several questions about the Texas money laundering law and even a question about federal campaign donation law, prompting Judge Priest to tell them: "You may be getting away from the decisions you must make." Late Wednesday afternoon in a courthouse fast emptying for the Thanksgiving holiday, the jury announced almost at day's end they had a verdict. DeLay's high-powered attorney Dick DeGuerin appeared as crushed as his client. "To say I'm shocked is an understatement," DeGuerin said. "This will never stand up on appeal."

Earlier in the trial, DeLay had quipped that he wanted liberals on his jury because they were more empathetic. The six man, six woman jury, drawn from an Austin-area jury pool, a region of the state known for its staunch Democratic leanings, was made up of six Democrats, one Republican, three independent liberals and two independent conservatives, according to the Houston Chronicle. The forewoman was a self-described Greenpeace advocate and a former anthropology student.

Whether DeLay remains out on bail through the appeal process will depend on the judge, but there is little doubt this epic legal battle is not over. DeLay's political arch-enemies greeted the verdict with glee and, of course, tortured metaphors. "Today's ruling shows that the culture of corruption Tom DeLay created in Washington went a few too many dance steps beyond the pale of American politics," declared former Democratic Congressman Nick Lampson, who briefly held DeLay's old seat after the Hammer's sudden departure created chaos in Texas Republican circles.

But DeLay's fate may be little comfort to Texas Democrats focused on the wider picture. Consider the former Majority Leader's last words on Dancing with the Stars. "What's a little pain when we can party," DeLay said as he took his final bow on the dance floor, debilitated by broken bones in one foot. After all, the GOP wins orchestrated by DeLay and fueled, in small part by those 2002 funding moves at the center of the trial, were just the first step in a waltz across Texas by Republicans. On election day, a couple of weeks before DeLay's verdict, Republicans strengthened their hold on the statehouse, defeating the Democratic leader and several of his lieutenants, and gaining a bulletproof two-thirds majority, giving them the right to redistrict Texas. And the Hammer could very well stay out of prison, on bail while his appeal is being heard. As for jail time, the speculation is that he will be put on probation, or given a brief time behind bars at worst, plus a hefty five-digit fine.