AUSTIN, Texas — Republican Rep. Tom DeLay’s fate could hinge on a Stetson-wearing defense attorney who not only represented Waco cult leader David Koresh and helped a cross-dressing millionaire beat a murder rap, but is also a Democrat.
Why did Dick DeGuerin agree to represent one of the most fiercely partisan figures on Capitol Hill, a man who was House majority leader until his indictment on money laundering and conspiracy charges?
“I don’t think there’s anybody who needed me worse,” said DeGuerin, who will accompany DeLay to his first court appearance Friday.
“Not that I agree with his politics. I’m defending what’s happening to him. He’s being prosecuted because of his politics. He did change the face of politics in Texas,” said the 64-year-old celebrity member of the Texas bar. But he added: “I don’t think he did anything wrong.”
DeLay has been charged with illegally funneling corporate donations to candidates for the Texas Legislature in 2002. Texas law generally prohibits the use of corporate money for campaigning.
The fund-raising had major political consequences: It helped the GOP take control of the Texas House. The Legislature then redrew Texas’ congressional districts in a way that sent more Republicans to Washington and helped the GOP solidify its House majority.
Attacking a fellow Democrat
DeGuerin’s strategy has been to attack the man who brought the charges, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a fellow Democrat whose office in Texas’ capital city is responsible for investigating election abuses.
In court papers, DeGuerin has accused Earle of prosecutorial misconduct, including improperly sharing information with grand jurors, urging them to talk to the media and trying to coerce DeLay to plead guilty to a lesser crime.
“He looks at the law and he sees what he wants to see, and he prosecutes what he thinks ought to be prosecuted, rather than what it is,” DeGuerin said.
Earle has denied the case is politically motivated and has said it is his job to investigate abuses of power.
As for DeGuerin’s politics, his father worked for Lyndon B. Johnson while he was in Congress, and DeGuerin considers himself a loyal Democrat. He is not a prolific political contributor, but when he gives he largely backs Democrats.
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But the candidate who has received the most contributions from DeGuerin is his former client Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. He has contributed about $10,000 to her campaigns between 1990 and 2006.
Good track record against Earle
DeGuerin won an acquittal for Hutchison on charges of misconduct and document-tampering charges in 1994 — a case also brought by Earle. Hutchison did not respond to interview requests for this story.
The lawyer is also involved in Texas’ 2006 gubernatorial campaign as an unpaid adviser to Kinky Friedman, a musician, mystery writer and all-around wiseacre who is running as an independent. His slogan: “Why the Hell Not?”
DeGuerin said he thinks Friedman’s candidacy can do something about the public’s disaffection for the political process and boost turnout.
“He’s going to bring people back to the process,” DeGuerin said. “I’ve seen politics get so divisive and so polarized that I think it’s a vulnerability.”
Born in Austin, the liberal seat of Texas, DeGuerin graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1965 and began his career with the district attorney’s office in Houston. He got his big break when he was offered a job by Texas legal giant Percy Foreman, who defended Jack Ruby, the man who shot President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
In 1982, DeGuerin struck out on his own, and his celebrity grew.
DeGuerin represented Koresh before he died with about 80 followers in a fire that erupted during a federal siege of their Waco compound in 1993. Hired by Koresh’s mother, DeGuerin went inside the compound during the 51-day standoff that preceded the blaze and took part in negotiations between Koresh and the FBI. He blames the government for the fiery ending.
Successfully argued self-defense
DeGuerin last year won an acquittal for Robert Durst, the cross-dressing heir to a real estate fortune who was charged with murdering a neighbor in Texas in 2003. Durst admitted dismembering the victim and dumping the remains. DeGuerin argued that Durst killed in self-defense.
At trial, DeGuerin brings out the best in prosecutors, former state Rep. Terry Keel said. Keel, an Austin Republican who worked in Earle’s office as a prosecutor, faced DeGuerin in a murder case that involved a Texas mayor who killed his wife and her boyfriend. The mayor was convicted but was spared the death penalty.
“Dick DeGuerin is a rare entity in that he is phenomenal at all phases of trial,” Keel said. “He is a lawyer who will personally live the case. He will spend the amount of time it takes with his clients and anyone else, including witnesses if necessary, to totally indoctrinate himself into the facts. He is unflappable in the courtroom, and he’s very talented in his interpersonal skills with the jury.”
DeGuerin is a pilot who loves to fly to far West Texas. He also likes to go on trail rides with friends and is proud to show off his callused fingertips from his years of guitar playing. He is married, with two daughters from a previous marriage, two stepdaughters and two grandsons.
He has taught at the University of Texas Law School for 12 years. This semester, he is teaching Advanced Criminal Defense, walking students through his cases and how he beat prosecutors.
Third-year student Polo Gonzalez said DeGuerin told the class that lawyers should keep their clients quiet, so classmates were puzzled after DeLay’s indictment to hear the lawmaker defend himself on talk radio, television and in the newspapers.
According to Gonzalez, when students asked DeGuerin about it, the lawyer responded: “I don’t have control of Tom DeLay. He’s his own man.”
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