Guilty and Sentenced, Tom DeLay's Texas Legacy Grows

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Jack Plunkett / AP Photo

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay waits for his sentencing decision at the Travis Co. Courthouse in Austin, Texas, Jan. 10, 2011.

It has been a seven year fall from power for former Congressman Tom DeLay — "the Hammer" as he was also known when he was one of the most powerful political personages in Washington — a legal odyssey that entered its latest phase when he was sentenced to three years in prison earlier this week. But when or whether the former House Republican Majority Leader will see prison time is up to a Texas criminal justice system that is, paradoxically, both pro-prosecution and heavily populated by Republican judges.

The prosecution had asked for a 10 year sentence that would have ensured DeLay would have to report to prison while his appeals went forward. But District Judge Pat Priest, appointed to the case by Republican Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, handed down a three-year sentence for conspiring to commit money laundering and 10-years probation on a money laundering charge, a punishment that left DeLay shaken, and his wife and daughter in tears.

Still, some courthouse watchers expressed surprise that DeLay was handed prison time. They noted that in several recent political corruption cases the offenders simply received probation, including Democratic State Rep. Kino Flores, also on trial in November in a courtroom down the hall from the DeLay trial. Flores was found guilty of accepting kickbacks and was given probation by the same judge originally assigned to the DeLay case (a judge who was replaced after defense attorney Dick DeGuerin complained about his strong Democratic Party ties). Nevertheless, DeLay already has an indication from pre-trial appellate activity that he may have a shot at overturning the sentence, an outcome that is denied in 95% of criminal cases in the Texas appellate system, according to George Dix, a professor of criminal law at the University of Texas. Though he was taken into immediate custody by sheriff's deputies after the sentence was read, he was quickly released from county jail on a $10,000 appeal bond.

But even as he has fallen farther and farther, DeLay's vision for the Texas Republican Party continues to be fulfilled — the very ambitions that lie at the heart of his woes. Republicans continue to gain power at the statehouse and dominate the numbers in the state's congressional delegation. It was DeLay's aggressive fundraising for both state and federal political action committees in 2002 that boosted a Republican surge and opened the door to a mid-decade redrawing of the state's congressional map by the newly elected GOP-dominated state legislature. But it also prompted the criminal indictment charging DeLay with money laundering for shifting corporate donations, prohibited by the Texas state constitution, from a federal PAC to a state campaign fund.

But despite DeLay's personal woes, Republicans have continued to bolster their numbers at their polls. On the day he was sentenced, just three blocks to the north the newly reinforced Republican-dominated Texas Legislature began its 82nd session — a two year proceeding that likely will end before DeLay will see a day in prison. Faced with budget shortfalls, the conservative legislature and statewide leadership have cut spending in recent years and likely will meet the challenge of a $25 billion gap this year by enacting more cuts — much to the chagrin of Democrats who fear education and vital services wills suffer.

It is no surprise then that Democratic strategist Matt Angle hailed the sentence. Angle is the founder of the Lone Star Project which dogs the Republican Party on policy and has made DeLay a major focus of its criticism. Also, Angle's former boss Democratic Congressman Martin Frost fell victim of DeLay's redistricting efforts. The strategist made note of the opening of the legislative session, predicting deep cuts by a legislature that shares DeLay's conservative vision of government: "We must also acknowledge that Texas Republicans learned [DeLay's] lessons well and Texas will suffer while his disciples continue to serve."