Former House GOP leader Tom DeLay sentenced to 3 years in prison

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Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, once one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, was sentenced on Monday to three years in prison for his conviction on corruption charges.

DeLay waived his right to have the jury decide his fate, and instead chose to have state district judge Pat Priest determine his punishment in an Austin, Texas courtroom.

DeLay was found guilty of a money swap, which prosecutors said was used to funnel campaign contributions to other Texas politicians.

Priest sentenced him to three years on a conspiracy charge and five years on a money laundering charge. In lieu of the sentence on the money laundering charge, the judge will allow DeLay to serve 10 years of probation with community service, and for the sentences to run concurrently.

Prosecutors presented only one witness at the hearing, Peter Cloeren, a businessman who pleaded guilty to campaign finance rules violations.  Cloeren claimed that DeLay had encouraged him to make the illegal donations in 1996, while the defense noted that DeLay wasn’t charged with any wrongdoing in the case.

The judge cut the prosecution testimony short, ruling that Cloeren’s testimony couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert appeared on DeLay’s behalf, although earlier, defense lawyers said they would present as many as nine character witnesses.  Defense lawyers also submitted more than 30 letters attesting to DeLay’s character, including former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and 8 current U.S. congressmen.

The former Houston-area congressman, nicknamed “The Hammer”, was convicted Nov. 24 on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, in what prosecutors described as a money swap intended to illegally funnel campaign contributions to fellow Texas politicians in 2002.

At the center of the charges was whether DeLay violated campaign contribution laws for his part in a single transaction involving the alleged money swap. A political action committee he founded, Texans for a Republican Majority, sent a $190,000 contribution to the Republican National Committee, which in turn, according to prosecutors, used the monies to help fund the 2002 campaigns of seven Texas Republican candidates supported by DeLay.

Under Texas state rules, corporate political donations to candidates are prohibited. Prosecutors said that corporate donations to the PAC were “laundered” by virtue of a special arrangement with the RNC in Washington. They claimed that the monies from the PAC were corporate funds, but funneled through the RNC to skirt campaign finance laws.

Travis County prosecutor Beverly Mathews charged that the exchange of monies ultimately had a much larger role in state and national politics. The monies helped get more Republicans elected to the Texas House, which allowed the GOP to push through a redistricting plan so that more Republicans could get elected to Congress, further cementing DeLay’s leadership position.

DeLay had been under investigation for years, and his political career had been badly damaged by his association with Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, causing him to resign in 2006.  The lobbyist, a close friend of DeLay’s, was convicted on charges of tax evasion, mail fraud and conspiracy.

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