Influential Republican Congressman Tom DeLay could face a trial early next year now that a judge has refused to throw out money-laundering allegations against him.
Judge Pat Priest dismissed a conspiracy charge against DeLay in his ruling Monday, but with the more serious charges still intact, the case heads closer to trial — although other defense objections remain to be heard.
While Delay's office claimed it was a victory, the decision has created tremendous political problems for the congressman, said CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger. DeLay is going to trial, and Borger reports many of the rank and file Republicans she talks to are becoming restless, some saying they think he should never return to his post as House majority leader because
He had hoped to have the charges resolved by the time Congress reconvened in late January, so he could step back into his leadership post.
The longer the House goes without a permanent majority leader, the more likely it is that Republicans will elect a new one.
The ruling comes after a hearing late last month in which the Republican's attorney argued the indictment was fatally flawed.
The judge's decision to throw out the conspiracy charge "underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were," said DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden.
After his indictment in September, DeLay, under House rules, relinquished the leadership post he had held since 2003.
If the charges against him are resolved, DeLay still has a chance of returning as long as the House Republican caucus is patient. At any time, though, his colleagues could decide to hold new elections.
District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who launched the charges against DeLay, said in a statement that he has not decided whether to appeal the ruling. Prosecutors have 15 days to challenge the decision.
Priest, who is presiding over the case, said he would not set another hearing until the appeal decision has been resolved.
DeLay declined to speak with reporters Monday evening as he entered a campaign fundraiser with Vice President Dick Cheney at a Houston hotel.
But Maddens said DeLay "is very encouraged by the swift progress of the legal proceedings and looks forward to his eventual and absolute exoneration based on the facts and the law."
CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen reports the decision is good news for DeLay because it narrows the scope of the case against him and other defendants. By kicking out the conspiracy charge but keeping in place the money laundering charge, it makes it tougher, but not impossible, for prosecutors to gain a conviction because it requires them to focus more in specific DeLay acts, Cohen said.
DeLay, 58, and two Republican fundraisers, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, are accused of illegally funneling $190,000 in corporate donations to 2002 Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature. Under Texas law, corporate money cannot be directly used for political campaigns, but it can be used for administrative purposes.
DeLay lawyer Dick DeGuerin asked that the charges be thrown out, arguing that one charge — conspiracy to violate the Texas election code — did not even take effect until September 2003, a year after the alleged offenses occurred.
Prosecutors, however, said the crime of conspiracy was already on the books, and could be applied to the election code even though such uses were not explicitly in state law at the time.
The judge was not persuaded by that argument and dismissed the conspiracy charge.
However, the judge upheld charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Those charges involve an alleged attempt by DeLay to conceal the source of the campaign contributions by funneling the money through his own political action committee and then an arm of the Republican National Committee.
Conspiracy to violate the election code carries up to two years in prison. Money laundering is punishable by five years to life. Conspiracy to commit money laundering carries two years.
The alleged campaign-finance scheme had far-reaching political effects: With DeLay's fund-raising muscle, the Republicans took control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years, then pushed through a congressional redistricting plan engineered by DeLay that resulted in more Texas Republicans going to Congress.
The judge has yet to rule on a defense bid to move DeLay's trial out of liberal, Democratic-leaning Austin and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. DeGuerin accused the district attorney of shopping the DeLay case around to different grand juries until he found one that would indict the congressman.