- Associated Press - Monday, October 25, 2010

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Potential jurors in the corruption trial of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay were quizzed Tuesday about whether their political beliefs could interfere in their ability to make an impartial decision in the case.

Jury selection began Tuesday some five years after Mr. DeLay was indicted on charges he illegally funneled corporate money to help Republicans in Texas legislative races in 2002.

Mr. DeLay smiled and held the hand of his wife Christine as he entered a courthouse in Travis County earlier in the day.

“I feel great, absolutely great,” said Mr. DeLay, one of the most polarizing politicians during former President George W. Bush’s administration. “I’m not worried at all.”

Mr. DeLay’s attorneys tried to get his trial moved, fearing he could not get a fair trial in Austin, the most Democratic city in one of the most Republican states. Mr. 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.

Gary Cobb, the lead prosecutor, told the jury pool his office has prosecuted all kinds of politicians, pointing out that a Democratic state lawmaker was being tried in an adjacent courthouse on Tuesday.

“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?’” Mr.Cobb said.

Most in the jury pool said they could be fair, but 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.”

The jury was expected to be chosen from a group of nearly 90 people, part of an initial pool of 320 people. A jury could be chosen by late Tuesday, if not Wednesday.

Testimony in the case was set to begin Monday, the eve of Election Day, with the trial lasting at least three weeks.

Mr. DeLay, who has been pressing for a trial, says he committed no crime. His case was slowed down by appeals of pretrial rulings.

The 63-year-old Mr. DeLay is charged with two crimes: 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. Mr. DeLay has chosen for the judge, not the jury, to sentence him if he’s convicted.

Mr. DeLay and two associates — Jim Ellis and John Colyandro — are accused by prosecutors of taking $190,000 in corporate money collected by a state political action committee Mr. 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 Mr. DeLay that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004.

Mr. Ellis and Mr. 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.

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