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DeLay judge abruptly steps aside after suggesting plea bargains

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, March 14, 2011 11:15 EDT
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A Texas judge who’s spent years overseeing the high-profile trial of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has recused himself from the trials of two DeLay co-defendants, abruptly stepping aside after he reportedly suggested plea bargains to attorneys for the defense.

District Judge Pat Priest made the suggestion while conferring with attorneys for DeLay co-defendants John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, both of whom were indicted in 2005 and hit with numerous charged related to money laundering and improper political donations.

But with Judge Priest stepping aside, a new judge will have to be appointed. A new pre-trial hearing has been scheduled for mid-May and it was unclear who the new judge would be.

Priest sentenced DeLay to three years in prison and has overseen the case for over five years now.

He stepped aside after defense attorneys made a recall motion, questioning his objectivity. While many legal experts told The Austin American-Statesman that his actions weren’t that unusual, he appears to have made the decision in order to avoid any appearance of improper judicial conduct.

During the same hearing Thursday, Priest also denied a petition by DeLay for a retrial.

DeLay aide Jim Ellis ran the former majority leader’s political action committee, which was instrumental in helping to launder illegal corporate donations through the Republican party and into the coffers of loyal DeLay associates. Colyandro ran the Texas wing of DeLay’s political action committee and was included in the indictments.

DeLay ultimately went down for conspiring to use his political action committees to illegally channel $190,000 in corporate donations into 2002 Texas legislative races through an illegal money swapping scheme.

When he was convicted last November, DeLay had asked that Priest sentence him. The judge obliged and handed DeLay 3 years in prison and 10 years probation on related charges.

“It’s kind of a unique situation,” explained Craig McDonald, director of the non-profit group Texans for Public Justice, which filed the original legal complaint against DeLay.

“All we can do is speculate,” he told Raw Story. “Had he not chosen to recuse himself, the defendants could have taken this to another judge, delaying the procedure again. As it is, it’s going to be a few more months until it moves on, so it’s safe to say that justice is just crawing in this case that extends back to 2002.

“Clearly the defense had the right to pursue the motion. There are some legal scholars… that think that the motion did not have merit. But again, his motivation might have been that he’s retired, maybe he’s sick of this case.”

An email to Judge Priest went unreturned.

It was unclear whether a new judge would be a plus for DeLay’s co-defendants, but if that judge gives them a pass, it could provide a significant rhetorical boost to DeLay’s appeal.

Updated from an original version to correct the spelling of Judge Priest.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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