AUSTIN (AP) – Opening statements began Monday in the trial of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is accused of helping to illegally finance Texas legislative races in 2002.
Prosecutors began laying out their case against DeLay, the once powerful but polarizing Republican, to jurors on Monday. Defense attorneys were to follow.
DeLay was upbeat as he entered an Austin courtroom.
“The prosecution doesn’t have a case. How can I not feel confident,” DeLay, standing next to his wife Christine, said before the proceedings.
DeLay has been pressing for a trial since he was indicted five years ago, but the case was slowed by appeals of pretrial rulings, including his attorneys’ attempt to move the trial out of Austin — the most Democratic city in one of the most Republican states.
DeLay, who has long denied any wrongdoing, is charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison. Jurors were selected last week, and the trial is expected to last three weeks.
Prosecutors allege that DeLay and two associates — Jim Ellis and John Colyandro — illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate money, which had been collected by a group DeLay started, through the Washington-based Republican National Committee to help elect GOP state legislative candidates in 2002.
Under Texas law, corporate money cannot be directly used for political campaigns.
Republicans in 2002 won a majority in the Texas House for the first time since the Civil War era. That majority helped Republicans push through a congressional redistricting plan engineered by DeLay that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004.
DeLay and his lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, have said the charges were politically motivated by former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who brought the original case but has since retired. Earle is a Democrat.
DeLay’s defense team also worried about the trial being held in liberal Austin and its timing, since opening statements were scheduled to begin a day before the contentious midterm elections.
Lead prosecutor Gary Cobb has said the charges were not politically motivated, but acknowledged “there will be politics talked about during the case.”
DeLay was once one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, earning the nickname “the Hammer” for his heavy-handed style.
The criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of his ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, forced DeLay to step down as majority leader and eventually to resign after representing suburban Houston for 22 years. The Justice Department has since ended its federal investigation into DeLay’s ties to Abramoff without filing any charges against DeLay.
Ellis and Colyandro, who face lesser charges, will be tried later. A previous charge alleging they and DeLay had engaged in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws was dismissed.
DeLay has been mostly out of public view since resigning from Congress, except for an appearance on ABC’s hit television show “Dancing With the Stars.” He now runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.
(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)