Rep. Tom DeLay appeared in court Friday for the first time since his indictment, but arraignment on conspiracy and money laundering charges was delayed pending a hearing on his request for a new judge.
DeLay, who has stepped aside at least for the time being as House majority leader, did not speak during the brief court session, and was not called on to make a plea. But at a news conference shortly afterward, he attacked the prosecutor in the case as politically motivated, and said, “I will absolutely be exonerated.”
Inside the courtroom, Judge Bob Perkins told defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin that “the best way for me to handle” the request for a new judge would be to defer further proceedings and have another judge hold a hearing.
That set the stage for a pointed exchange between the two men that seemed as much a campaign debate as a courtroom exchange.
DeLay appeared relaxed as he sat next to his wife, Christine, in the courtroom for what turned out to be a session of roughly four minutes.
In respectful tones, DeGuerin noted that Perkins had donated money to MoveOn.org, a liberal organization that he said has been “selling T-shirts with Mr. DeLay’s mug shot on it.”
“Let me just say I haven’t ever seen that T-shirt, number one. Number two, I haven’t bought it. Number three, the last time I contributed to MoveOn that I know of was prior to the November election last year, when they were primarily helping Sen. Kerry,” responded the judge.
MoveOn.org denied it was selling any such shirts, and issued a statement that said, “DeGuerin has either bad information or lied in court.”
“All we want is a fair trial and a fair tribunal,” DeGuerin told reporters outside the courthouse.
Prosecutor Ronnie Earle signaled he intends to contest the request for a new judge.
“What this means is if a judge had contributed to Crime Stoppers that judge could not hear a burglary case,” Earle said. “Carried to its extreme, that is what I think this motion means and I think that’s absurd.”
“We don’t live in a country where political party determines the measure of justice,” Earle said, adding that he thought DeLay could get a fair trial in the state’s capital.
Administrative Judge B.B. Schraub will hold a hearing on whether Perkins should step aside. Schraub is based outside of Austin in the nearby town of Seguin, has been the administrative judge for the region since 1990 and is a Republican. Three Republicans and one Democratic governor have appointed or reappointed him to his job, his assistant said.
It was not clear how much the motion would lengthen proceedings in the case. The Texas congressman has said he wants a speedy trial.
DeLay and two political associates are charged in an alleged scheme to funnel corporate donations to GOP candidates for the Texas Legislature. State law prohibits use of corporate donations to elect or defeat state candidates. All three deny wrongdoing.
The case has had a political cast from the outset. The charges arise from a campaign in which Republicans gained control of the legislature, then used their new majority to force through a redistricting plan that netted the GOP additional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
DeLay’s indictment has roiled Republican politics in Washington, where he was forced to step aside as the No. 2 House Republican. With an eye on the 2006 elections, Democrats have sought to turn him into a symbol of what they depict as an ethically-challenged Republican majority.
But apart from giving up his leadership post — as required under GOP rules — DeLay has been nothing but defiant.
He retains a powerful influence in the House GOP high command, has repeatedly attacked Earle and now seeks to force the removal of the judge, who has donated to the organization that DeLay’s lawyer described as antithetical to GOP fortunes.
“I will not let a prosecutor who pursues his political enemies by abusing the law and manufacturing baseless charges wreck our justice system,” DeLay said at his news conference.
Apart from seeking a new judge, the congressman’s lawyers are asking to have the case moved out of Austin, one of the state’s most liberal areas.
Booked on Thursday
DeLay turned himself in to the Harris County sheriff’s office in Houston on Thursday, avoiding hordes of reporters waiting for him in nearby Fort Bend County, where he lives.
He smiled broadly in a mug shot that was publicly released. DeLay also was fingerprinted, went before a judge and was released on $10,000 bail.
DeLay’s co-defendants are John Colyandro of Dallas, who was executive director of a Texas political action committee founded by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, a paid adviser who also runs DeLay’s national fundraising committee. They also face conspiracy and money laundering charges, but their attorneys asked that their cases be separated from DeLay’s proceedings.