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Homepage / TOM DELAY

'The Hammer' Lets Up, Ever So Slightly

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay says he has no regrets, except for one -- that maybe he was a little too arrogant.

Tom DeLay leaves the Travis County Jail after Texas Senior Judge Pat Priest sentenced him 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.(Ben Sklar/Getty Images)

photo of Major Garrett
January 24, 2011

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.

"There is no crime here. This is the first time in the entire U.S. that the criminal code has been used to enforce the election code. There is no precedent for this. I'm not stupid. From 1995, I had lawyers telling me when I could go to the bathroom. We checked and double-checked everything. If anyone should have been indicted, it should have been the Republican National Committee."

Unique among House Republicans, DeLay made his mission in Washington to build a vast nationwide and lobbyist-backed fund-raising machine that would protect the GOP majority for years to come. He called it the K Street Project--which systematically linked industry lobbyists to parts of the GOP majority's legislative process--and sought to mimic tactics he believed Democrats mastered to integrate special-interest support with his party's race-by-race funding needs. Democrats accused DeLay of an unseemly integration of lobbyists and legislation-drafting during his years in power. Either way, DeLay was one of the few Republicans who did not consider the term "machine politics" pejorative.

"I wouldn't change anything; I did the best I could. I was creative in the things I did."

DeLay claims he's the victim of selective prosecution, something Judge Priest specifically rejected. The case was tried in Travis County, Texas's most liberal county. DeLay also asserts that the prosecution never proved money laundering or conspiracy.

And yet he's a convicted felon, who is facing three years in prison if his appeals fail.

"It's really not about the jury. The jury did what it had to do. [But] the jury did not look at the law. The prosecution put on a case of a corrupt politician, flying around on a plane, going on trips, wicked lobbyists and all of this kind of stuff. They just painted this picture, 'This guy is corrupt' and he ought to go to prison. And the jury bought it."

The House Ethics Committee admonished DeLay--its weakest penalty--in 2004 on three separate charges: for promising a Republican House member that he would back his son's race for Congress if he voted for President Bush's Medicare drug bill; for hosting a fund-raiser with energy interests while the GOP-led Congress debated major energy legislation; and for his office's improper use of the Federal Aviation Administration to track a flight carrying Texas Democratic legislators who left the state Capitol in a heated dispute over redistricting.

DeLay always contended the admonishments proved he had done much less than what his Democratic political opponents had accused him of. He views his conviction now as an extension of that phenomenon.

"It's not a conspiracy, but it certainly is a strategy," he said. "But I just feel very confident that I will win this in the end. I feel pretty good."

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