DeLay does his 'Dancing' on TV but is in legal limbo off the air

AUSTIN -- Like the other contestants on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," Tom DeLay hopes he wowed the judges this week with his cha-chas across the stage with professional dancing partner Cheryl Burke.

But the former U.S. House majority leader may be more concerned about the opinions of black-robed judges back in his home state as he continues to battle prosecutors in a 4-year-old legal tangle that shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

The state's case against the once-powerful congressional figure and two political associates has droned through Texas courts since it began unfolding in 2005, with prosecutors and defense attorneys slugging it out in appeals and counter-appeals.

DeLay — still known by his nickname, "The Hammer" — has sought to rebound as a voice for conservative causes after the campaign finance scandal forced his resignation from Congress in June 2006. His legal antagonist, former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, retired at the end of 2008 and is now considering running for governor as a Democrat.

But the prosecution against DeLay and co-defendants John Colyandro and Jim Ellis has continued under Earle's Democratic successor, Rosemary Lehmberg.

DeLay's attorney, Dick DeGuerin of Houston, says his client is "excited" and energized by being chosen to appear on the popular nationwide TV show. But the ongoing criminal case still hangs over him, said DeGuerin.

"He’s not happy with it at all," DeGuerin said this week. "He’s trying to get on with his life . . . but having this legal limbo above you is not a comfortable position to be in."

The investigation had its roots in Republicans’ successful efforts to take over the Texas House of Representatives when DeLay, then a Houston-area congressman, was at the height of his congressional power.

An indictment returned by a Travis County grand jury alleges that the defendants laundered corporate contributions — which are illegal in state legislative races — through a $190,000 check sent to the Republican National Committee, which in turn donated $190,000 to seven GOP candidates. The donations were channeled through a group called Texans for a Republican Majority, prosecutors say.

DeLay and his two associates are still fighting charges of money laundering and conspiracy to engage in money laundering; a charge of conspiracy to commit election violations has been thrown out on appeal.

They have vigorously denied any wrongdoing, saying that the corporate donations were properly used outside of Texas and that the money from the RNC originated from other sources.

From the outset, DeLay has portrayed himself as the target of a partisan Democratic prosecutor out to snare GOP office-holders, calling Earle a "runaway district attorney."

The former DA, who still lives in Austin, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But, in a recent interview, Earle denied that he engaged in partisan behavior, saying that he prosecuted far more Democrats than Republicans.

A final resolution could hinge on a future ruling by the state’s highest criminal appeals court in a segment of the case involving Colyandro and Ellis, who were first indicted nearly a year before DeLay. A lower appeals court, while upholding the indictment against the two defendants, concluded last year that the state money-laundering statute in force at the time applied only to cash and not to checks. The law, originally aimed at drug-related laundering, was changed in 2005 to include checks.

Prosecutors are appealing the ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Although the decision did not directly affect DeLay, it gives attorneys for all three defendants added ammunition to call for dismissal on the grounds that the exchange involved a check and not cash.

Judge Pat Priest of San Antonio, the presiding judge in DeLay’s case, threw out the check argument in a previous ruling but has since told attorneys that he will await the high court’s ruling.

"He’s waiting on the Court of Criminal Appeals decision in the Colyandro and Ellis case before he makes his final ruling in the DeLay case," said Assistant District Attorney Bryan Case, who is overseeing the appeals. "He’ll either throw out the rest of the indictment or say 'Let’s go to trial.’ "

Attorneys will file briefs within the next two weeks, followed by oral arguments. "It’s going to be awhile," said Case.

Meanwhile, DeLay will learn his fate tonight in the Dancing With the Stars’ first elimination show of the season.