The Tom DeLay case appeared to finally have a judge Friday, after a judicial merry-go-round that illustrated the complications that can result when judges are elected and the charges are politically sensitive.
Senior Judge Pat Priest, a Democrat, was chosen to preside over the trial, in which the Republican congressman and two associates are charged with conspiracy and money laundering in an allegedly illegal campaign-finance scheme.
DeLay’s attorneys got a different Democratic judge removed from the case Tuesday, saying campaign contributions the judge made gave the appearance of bias. But one of the former House majority leader’s lawyers spoke glowingly of Priest on Friday.
“Pat Priest has the reputation of being one of the finest judges in the state, and he’s a Democrat, and he has a reputation for being a scholar. He has a reputation of being scrupulously fair,” attorney Bill White said.
State district Judge Bob Perkins, the Democrat initially assigned to the case, was deemed unacceptable by DeLay because of more than $5,000 Perkins contributed to Democratic candidates and causes over five years. One of the beneficiaries, MoveOn.org, has a “Fire Tom DeLay” campaign but did not when Perkins made his donations.
New judge’s appointment questioned
After a fellow Democratic judge agreed to remove Perkins, it was up to Administrative Judge B.B. Schraub, a Republican, to pick his replacement. But the prosecutor in DeLay’s case contested his role, saying that as a judge who gave money to GOP candidates, Schraub, like Perkins, should be forced to step aside.
Prosecutors believe Schraub to be “completely fair and impartial, with a sterling reputation of honesty and integrity,” Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle wrote. “However, as the recusal of Judge Perkins reflected, such is unfortunately no longer the standard in our state for the judiciary.”
Schraub voluntarily stepped aside Thursday and sent the matter to Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, a Republican and an appointee Gov. Rick Perry who later won his seat in a statewide election.
Money issues on all sides
In a lightning-quick move, Jefferson named Priest to DeLay’s case. Around the same time, Earle’s office filed court papers complaining about Jefferson and his ties to money and people in DeLay’s camp.
On Friday, Jefferson sent a letter to Earle and to DeLay’s lawyer Dick DeGuerin denying Earle’s motion that Jefferson recuse himself. The chief justice said the responsibility for assigning judges ends with his office and that his appointment of Priest stands.
Earle had no immediate comment Friday.
Priest, 64, does not appear to be connected to high-profile party candidates or causes. Priest gave $450 to three Democratic members of the Texas House in 2004, campaign records show. He said that’s all he has contributed.
“I’m cheap,” Priest told the San Antonio Express-News.
DeGuerin said he sent a letter to Priest on Friday asking that the judge take up the defense’s change-of-venue motion first. DeLay’s lawyers want the case moved out of Austin, where they say they cannot get a fair trial.