DeLay Lawyers Petition for Judge's Removal

A hearing will be held Tuesday on whether the judge assigned to the trial of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) should be removed because of the judge's past political contributions. DeLay faces charges of conspiring to violate Texas election law and money laundering of campaign contributions.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And there's a controversy about a judge is Austin, this one hearing the case against Texas Congressman Tom DeLay. There's a hearing today on whether he should be removed. Former House Majority Leader DeLay faces charges of conspiring to violate Texas election law and money laundering of campaign contributions. The judge in DeLay's case is a Democrat in a state where judges are elected. DeLay's lawyers want the judge removed because of his past campaign contributions, as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

There are so many investigations of Washington politicians these days, it's getting difficult to keep track. But while Congressman Tom DeLay is one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill, this is not another Washington investigation. The indictment comes out of Austin, Texas. DeLay's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin is not happy with the venue or the judge hearing the case. He sees both as obstacles to justice.

Mr. DICK DeGUERIN (DeLay's Attorney): Well, first, I need to say that Judge Perkins has a reputation for being a fair judge. This is not about a personal attack on Judge Perkins.

GOODWYN: DeGuerin is talking about State District Judge Bob Perkins. In Texas, political contributions flow like wine from lawyers to judges, from judges to politicians and back again. In a political case like this, that can make the judge vulnerable to charges that his politicking has created an appearance of impropriety. DeGuerin believes that Judge Perkins has made too many contributions to Democrats.

Mr. DeGUERIN: When the Democrats want to raise money in Travis County, they trot out Tom DeLay as their whipping boy and have ads such as: Let's fire Tom DeLay. Let's get rid of Tom DeLay. And the judge then contributes to those causes. Now that simply doesn't look right.

GOODWYN: This is strangely familiar territory for DeLay's lawyer and Judge Perkins. In 1993, DeGuerin was representing newly elected US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. She'd been charged with using her staff and office while she was state treasurer to promote her campaign for the Senate. The prosecutor in that case, none other than the prosecutor in this case, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earl, and the judge, Bob Perkins. Perkins recused himself in the Hutchison case, because he'd given a campaign contribution to Hutchison's Democratic opponent, Bob Krueger, but Perkins is not removing himself in DeLay's case, and mandated recusals are unheard of in Texas. Cathy Burnett is an associate dean at South Texas College of Law in Houston and has been closely following the DeLay case.

Ms. CATHY BURNETT (Associate Dean, South Texas College of Law): I think the two cases are distinguishable. I think Judge Perkins correctly acted in the Kay Bailey Hutchison case to voluntarily recuse himself because the circumstances were very different. He recognized his personal relationship with her opponent. In this case, the allegation is that on the basis of his political affiliation, he can't be fair, and he's in the best position to know that. So it's not surprising to me that he didn't voluntarily recuse himself, and I don't see grounds here for a mandatory recusal.

GOODWYN: A different judge from another part of the state will decide whether Perkins will continue to hear the case, but having good lawyers is not the full extent of Tom DeLay's defense arsenal. The Republicans have been running radio ads in Austin that accuse District Attorney Earl of being an out-of-control partisan attack dog. You can hear the barking in the background.

(Soundbite of political ad; barking dogs)

Announcer: A prosecutor with a political agenda can be vicious. When liberal Democrat Ronnie Earl went after Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, the judge threw out his case. But now, Earl's after another Republican, Tom DeLay.

GOODWYN: DeLay wants a change of venue to someplace a little more conservative, but if that doesn't happen, the radio ads are an effective means of communicating with a potential jury pool, even if it is in Austin. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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