Prosecutors asked Texas' highest criminal court on Wednesday to reinstate the convictions of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in a scheme to influence state elections, saying a lower appeals court ignored key evidence.
Officials are trying to salvage their case against DeLay after the state's 3rd Court of Appeals last year tossed DeLay's 2010 convictions for money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
DeLay, 67, was confident after the hearing before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, telling reporters that a ruling in his favor will show "a little justice may still exist in the Texas judicial system."
Prosecutors alleged DeLay accepted $190,000 in corporate donations to his Texas-based political action committee, which then funneled those funds to seven Texas House candidates in 2002 through a money swap coordinated with an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee. Under state law, corporate money cannot be given directly to political campaigns.
The lower appeals court, however, ruled there was insufficient evidence for a jury to have found DeLay guilty of illegally funneling money to GOP candidates. DeLay had been sentenced to three years in prison, but that was put on hold while his case was appealed.
Prosecutor Holly Taylor of the Travis County District Attorney's Office in Austin told the appeals court that the lower court ignored evidence showing DeLay committed the offenses, including testimony from a former RNC official that showed the money swap was done "essentially to purchase that money for those (seven Texas) candidates."
Some of the judges on the court questioned how the corporate donations became "dirty money" if many of the officials from companies who donated to DeLay's PAC testified at trial that they gave their money with the intention of not violating state law. One judge questioned if the state's money laundering laws were intended to apply to election code violations.
"It seems like your theory of prosecution has some internal inconsistencies," said Sharon Keller, the court's presiding judge.
Taylor argued that DeLay's PAC made clear to corporate donors that their money would go directly to help political campaigns and candidates, a violation of state law.
"We have faith they will do the right thing," Taylor said after the hearing.
DeLay attorney Brian Wice told the judges that his client's prosecution wasn't about money laundering but about "the criminalization of politics."
"Are you saying politicians don't break the law?" Judge Elsa Alcala asked Wice.
Wice said there was no evidence at trial that the corporate donors intended to break the law, thus their money did not become the proceeds of criminal activity, an element needed to prove money laundering.
He also argued the money swap was legal as the corporate donations sent to the RNC by DeLay's PAC were exchanged for money from individual donations, which can go to political campaigns in Texas. Wice said the corporate and individual donations at the RNC were kept in separate accounts and were never comingled, thus not resulting in tainted money.
Wice said prosecutors have taken part in a "decade-long quest to manufacture an illegal act out of a series of legal ones."
DeLay, whose heavy-handed style while holding the No. 2 job in the U.S. House earned him the nickname "the Hammer," attended the hearing with his wife, Christine. The former congressman, who now writes a weekly column for The Washington Times and also has a show on the conservative newspaper's radio network, said he remains involved in politics.
"The Democrats nor the left have slowed me down one iota over this long period of time," he said.
The nine-judge court will issue a ruling at a later date.