A jury was chosen Tuesday in the trial of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a once powerful but polarizing politician accused of illegally financing Texas GOP legislative races in 2002.
The panel of six men and six women, along with two alternates, was selected after attorneys spent more than eight hours quizzing potential jurors about whether their political beliefs could interfere in their ability to make an impartial decision. Most said it wouldn't affect them.
Jurors were scheduled to return to court Monday, on the eve of Election Day, to hear opening arguments in a trial expected to last three weeks. The jury was chosen from a group of about 90 people whittled from an initial pool of 320.
DeLay, who has long denied wrongdoing, has been pressing for a trial since he was indicted five years ago, but his case was slowed by appeals of pretrial rulings. The 63-year-old former congressman held the powerful post of House speaker during former President George W. Bush's administration.
"We're ready," DeLay, standing next to his wife, Christine, said after the jury was chosen.
DeLay is charged with money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. If convicted of money laundering, he faces from five years to life in prison. The conspiracy charge carries a prison term of two to 20 years. DeLay has chosen for the judge, not the jury, to sentence him if he's convicted.
DeLay and two associates — Jim Ellis and John Colyandro — are accused of taking $190,000 in corporate money collected by a state political action committee that DeLay started and illegally funneling it through the Republican National Committee in Washington to help elect GOP state legislative candidates in 2002.
Under Texas law, corporate money cannot be directly used for political campaigns.
In 2002, the GOP won a majority in the Texas House of Representatives 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's attorneys tried to get the trial moved out of Austin, fearing he could not get a fair trial in the most Democratic city in one of the most Republican states. DeLay has said the charges were politically motivated by Ronnie Earle, the Democratic former Travis County district attorney who originally brought the case and retired in 2008.
On Tuesday, lead prosecutor Gary Cobb told prospective jurors that his office has prosecuted all kinds of politicians, noting that a Democratic state lawmaker was being tried in an adjacent courthouse.
"Mr. DeLay is a Republican. I'm a Democrat. This case has nothing to do with that. All that matters is, 'Can you put political feelings you may have (aside) and give both sides a fair trial?'" Cobb said.
DeLay's lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said he was concerned that someone might vote for a conviction based on politics since jury selection was being held only a week before the contentious midterm elections.
"It's not about whether you like Tom DeLay. I'm a Democrat and I like him," DeGuerin told potential jurors. "That's all we want: a fair jury and a fair trial."
Many in the jury pool said they knew little about the case and could be fair. One man who said he was a Democrat doubted his own impartiality because of his "distaste for the Republican Party and the way they behave."
Some of the potential jurors said they only knew DeLay from his stint competing on ABC's hit television show "Dancing With the Stars" in 2009. DeLay withdrew from the show after a few appearances because of an injury.
Before Senior Judge Pat Priest announced the jury, prosecutors accused DeGuerin of targeting blacks when using some of his challenges to remove potential jurors. DeGuerin denied the claim, saying those individuals showed anger toward him during Tuesday's questioning. One juror and an alternate are black.
In explaining the charges against DeLay, Cobb used a hypothetical example that incorporated characters from "The Simpsons" animated television series. In Cobb's example, Mr. Burns, the evil billionaire on the show, illegally gives money to politicians so he can expand his nuclear power plant.
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 the three men had engaged in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws was dismissed.
DeLay, who except for his foray into dancing has been mostly out of public view since resigning from Congress, now runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.