AUSTIN, Texas – A judge ordered former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to serve three years in prison Monday for his role in a scheme to illegally funnel corporate money to Texas candidates in 2002.
The sentence comes after a jury in November convicted DeLay on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The Republican who represented the Houston area was once one of the most powerful people in U.S. politics, ascending to the No. 2 job in the House of Representatives. During a several-minute statement to the judge prior to sentencing, DeLay repeated his longstanding claims that the prosecution was politically motivated and that he never intended to break the law.
"I can't be remorseful for something I don't think I did," DeLay said.
Senior Judge Pat Priest sentenced him to the three-year term on the conspiracy charge. He also sentenced him to five years in prison on the money laundering charge but allowed DeLay to accept 10 years of probation instead of more prison time.
DeLay was immediately taken into custody, but Priest granted a request from his attorneys that he be released on a $10,000 bond pending appeal once he is processed at the county jail. Prosecutors said it could mean DeLay will be free for months or even years as his appeal makes it through the Texas court system.
DeLay's attorney Dick DeGuerin said he expected the conviction would be overturned.
"If I told you what I thought, I'd get sued," DeGuerin said. "This will not stand."
The former congressman had faced up to life in prison. His attorneys asked for probation.
"What we feel is that justice was served," lead prosecutor Gary Cobb said.
Priest issued his ruling after a brief sentencing hearing on Monday in which former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert testified on DeLay's behalf.
Prosecutors attempted to present only one witness at the hearing, Peter Cloeren, a Southeast Texas businessman who claimed DeLay had urged him in 1996 to evade campaign finance laws in a separate case. Prosecutors said the case was similar to the one DeLay was being sentenced for.
But not long after Cloeren began testifying, Senior Judge Pat Priest declined to hear the testimony, saying prosecutors couldn't prove the businessman's claims beyond a reasonable doubt.
"You lose. I will not hear this testimony," Priest said after agreeing with DeLay's attorneys, who objected to the testimony, saying the former lawmaker was not criminally charged in the case. Cloeren pleaded guilty to directing illegal corporate money into the 1996 congressional campaign of an East Texas candidate.
DeLay's attorneys had indicated they would have up to nine witnesses but decided to present only Hastert.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican who was House speaker from 1999 to 2006, testified that DeLay was not motivated by power but for a need to help others. Hastert talked about DeLay's conservative and religious values, his efforts to provide tax relief for his constituents in Texas, his work helping foster children and the help he provided to the family of one of the police officers who was killed in a 1998 shooting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
"That's the real Tom DeLay that a lot of people never got to see," Hastert said.
Lead prosecutor Gary Cobb asked Hastert if one of DeLay's religious and conservative values was taking acceptance for doing wrong. Hastert said he hasn't personally heard DeLay take responsibility for the actions that resulted in his conviction.
DeLay's lawyers have also submitted more than 30 character and support letters from friends and political leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and eight current U.S. congressmen. Most of the letters ask for leniency in the sentencing.
After a month-long trial in November, a jury determined that he conspired with two associates to use his Texas-based political action committee to send $190,000 in corporate money to an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee. The RNC then sent the same amount to seven Texas House candidates. Under Texas law, corporate money can't go directly to political campaigns.
Prosecutors claim the money helped Republicans take control of the Texas House. That enabled the Republican majority to push through a Delay-engineered congressional redistricting plan that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004, strengthening DeLay's political power.