Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay still fights with former Texas colleague Dick Armey, regrets a lifetime of political arrogance, continues to defend earmarks, and vows to appeal his convictions on money-laundering and conspiracy charges all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
Texas Senior Judge Pat Priest sentenced DeLay this month to three years in prison on the conspiracy charge and converted a five-year sentence on the money-laundering charge to 10 years of probation.
In an exclusive interview with National Journal, DeLay called the jury verdict and sentence unjust and predicted that they would be overturned on appeal. But he also called the sentence--he had faced life in prison--the answer to his prayers.
"We prayed like crazy that we wouldn't get more than 10 years," DeLay said, noting that Texas law requires defendants sentenced to 10 years or more to pursue their appeals from prison. "We got less than 10, so that was an answer to prayer."
Although DeLay had much to say about the conviction and sentencing, he also had some tart observations on ex-Rep. Armey, earmarks, and the tea party.
He dismissed Armey's recent call for House GOP freshmen and leaders to be less aggressive than the team he and DeLay led with Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995. "We didn't manage our enthusiasms, and the fact of the matter is it ended up getting us into trouble," Armey told Politico.
DeLay would have none of it.
"I don't buy into this notion that Armey's talking about [curbing] your enthusiasm," said DeLay, who spoke to NJ from his suburban Houston home in Sugar Land. "That's the worst thing you can do. You want people to enthusiastically represent the people who sent them to Washington. It was hard to deliver on the things we delivered on, but we did it. This work is hard. It always is."
Despite sharing Texas roots and free-market philosophies, DeLay and Armey were never close, and they treated each other in leadership circles as rivals. In recent years, DeLay's legal woes have kept him on the sidelines. His proximity to disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and the perception that he tolerated the many and varied vices of criminality and unethical behavior that grew up around the GOP's use of earmarks has rendered DeLay, who left Congress in 2006, an almost forgotten voice in today's conservative resurgence.
"Yeah, when I see some of these down-and-out fights, I miss it," DeLay said. "But my life has changed. I don't have any regrets except--and I work on this every day--that maybe I didn't need to be so arrogant."
Despite earmarks' tainted image, DeLay has no patience for the House GOP's ban on them. Senate Republicans embraced the ban for the first time in the 112th Congress.
"I am not one of those guys. The purse strings belong to the House of Representatives, and earmarks are one of the ways to keep the executive-branch honest," DeLay said. "Why would you give up your responsibility and your authority to the executive branch?"
DeLay admitted he's out-of-step with tea party-inspired activists and Republicans. He calls the focus on earmarks misguided.
"They just don't agree with me. Unfortunately that's one of those issues that's become an issue. If you pound on it long enough, it becomes an issue, it becomes a slogan and the substance be damned. I mean, we're talking about less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all spending."
DeLay's preoccupation isn't with policy or politics--it's with the penitentiary.
"I'm trying to stay out of prison, obviously," DeLay said. "The appeals process could take anywhere from one to three to five years. I'll take it all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to, and that could take 10 years."
DeLay, currently free on a $10,000 bond, survives on consulting fees and says he's raised and spent more than $10 million on legal fees.
"What's at stake here is the criminalization of politics," said DeLay, convicted of laundering $190,000 in soft-money corporate contributions to his Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee through the Republican National Committee in 2002. "We got, basically, three years for getting Republicans elected. Crime is something done that is immoral. If you are playing in the political arena and playing within the rules, that's not a crime--even if you break the rules."
DeLay contends that the $190,000 in corporate contributions exceeded the amount he could legally devote to his PAC administrative expenses. He said he then sent those funds to the RNC and had an equal amount returned in the form of a "money swap" that he used to bankroll GOP candidates. Texas law forbids using corporate contributions to support candidates. During DeLay's trial, an RNC official testified that he had never encountered or made a money swap of the kind that DeLay set in motion.
But DeLay insists he did nothing wrong.
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