The Gambler Who Beat the House, and Lost it All

Photo courtesy of Chip Somodevilla/Getty Image
Photo courtesy of Chip Somodevilla/Getty Image

By: Amy Coleman, Staff Writer

There was a time when Tom “The Hammer” DeLay was on top of the world; he was House Majority Leader, second only to the Speaker of the House, from 2003-2006[i] and he was on Dancing with the Stars.[ii]  However, his luck soon ran out.

Thomas Dale DeLay was born in 1947 in Laredo, Texas.[iii]  His parents were blue collar and met at the Texas College of Arts and Industries, and then left school before graduation so his father, Charles Ray DeLay, could enlist in the military after Pearl Harbor.[iv]  Tom had an older brother named Ray, and a younger brother and sister named Randy and Tena.[v]  Tom’s paternal grandfather Ray was killed tragically while saving the life of his uncle Billy in a car crash in the 1950’s.[vi]  In 1956, Tom’s father took a job in Venezuela as a superintendent for oil fields, and the family followed.[vii]  But the violence in Venezuela soon proved too much for Tom’s mother, and the family moved back to the United States in 1960, making domicile in Corpus Christi.[viii]  There, his father co-founded Storm Drilling Company.[ix]  Hard labor was not in Tom’s nature, and he knew his only means to avoid it was a college education.[x]

Tom attended Callalen High School where he played linemen on the football team,[xi] and it was where he met his future wife, Christine Furrh.[xii]  He attended Baylor University, where he majored in Pre-Medical Studies.  After an incident involving vandalism to the Texas A&M campus, Tom was strongly urged to take some time off, and he never returned.[xiii]  Instead, he finished his degree at the University of Houston, and married Christine.[xiv]  His father had raised him with high expectations and demanding standards, but saw him as a disappointment, because he avoided the Vietnam draft through student deferments and then went to work for a pest control company after college.[xv]  However, Tom’s rather disappointing résumé turned out to be his greatest advantage in the beginning.  With the OPEC oil embargo, Texas’ political power rose in American politics out of a need to placate the largest source of oil in the United States.[xvi]  In the midst of that, no one seemed to take the exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas seriously.[xvii]  DeLay flew under the radar, and was able to slowly gain power while people let their guards down toward him.[xviii]

In 1978, Tom DeLay was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, whereby he became the first Republican to represent Fort Bend County.[xix]  When Representative Ron Paul announced his decision to run for the Senate, instead of running for reelection to the House, DeLay was elected to represent the 22nd District of Texas in the United States House of Representatives.[xx]  In a party known for its old money, historical family trees, and remarkable military service, a blue-collar exterminator was able to rise, and he did that at a blistering pace.  In four short years, DeLay became Deputy Whip.[xxi]  Six years later, he was elected House Majority Whip.[xxii]  Four years later, DeLay gained enough power for his Republican base in the House to impeach President Bill Clinton.[xxiii]  Five years later, DeLay, reaching his highest position to date, became House Majority Leader.[xxiv]  Tom was no Kennedy, but he gained positions other “career politicians” spent their careers hoping to attain.  DeLay was on top of the world; however, a crack turned into a leak, and the castle started to crumble.

In 2005, a Texas grand jury indicted DeLay on charges of illegally sending $190,000 in corporate money through the Republican National Committee, to help elect GOP Texas legislative candidates in 2002.[xxv]  Read the Indictment Here.  Without a trial date set, and facing criminal charges, DeLay resigned the congressional seat that he had held since 1985.[xxvi]  Read DeLay’s Resignation Letter Here.  After an unsuccessful motion to seek a venue change from Travis County to, what he perceived to be a more favorable venue, Fort Bend County, DeLay was convicted in November of 2010 on charges of felony money laundering and felony attempt of money laundering.[xxvii] In May of 2011, DeLay was sentenced to 3 years in prison and probation for 10 years.[xxviii]    Read Sentencing Report Here.  After countless analyses of his political dealings and motivation, the mainstream public lost touch with “The Hammer” as new scandals took over his place in the spotlight.

True to his word, DeLay never stopped fighting the conviction.  In December of 2012, his appeal was heard before the Texas Third Court of Appeals.[xxix]  DeLay’s arguments were successful.  The Texas Third Court of Appeals released an opinion, written by Justice Melissa Goodwin.[xxx]  In that opinion, the Court found the evidence against DeLay was legally insufficient to sustain a conviction on any count, and acquited him of all charges.  Read Full Opinion Here.

There were several conclusions that the appellate court made in this decision, including: where the state had the burden of proving a culpable state of mind, they failed to carry their burden where the witnesses from corporations testified that they intended the money to be used for lawful purposes, and intended to comply with the Elections Code, even where they neglected to expressly denote a lawful purpose for each transfer;[xxxi] where the Republican National State Elections Committee (“RNSEC”) issued funds to candidates from a hard money account, separate from its soft money account that contained funds from private citizens who were authorized to make political contributions, and not indirectly from corporations, there was no link between the corporate funds and the political campaigns; and, where money laundering and violations of the Elections Code are separate offenses, and the funds sent to the candidates cannot be tied to the corporate donors, there is insufficient evidence to prove money laundering, because there can be no money laundering if the funds were procured legally.  Therefore, the Court concluded that where the evidence was insufficient to prove the funds were illegally procured as a result of criminal activity, there was insufficient evidence to prove felony money laundering and felony attempt to money launder.

Some say DeLay evaded prison or escaped prison, others believe justice was done.  But it does not really matter as the Travis County District Attorney’s Office has already announced plans to appeal the decision.[xxxii]  This will mean more court costs, negative media attention, and more of a drawn out fight over the allegations and evidence.  But, at least, “The Hammer” lives to fight another day.

Will he run for office again? Highly unlikely.  Even if he did not “do it,” every allegation has been in the public eye, and, after all of that, it’s hard to sway the public opinion in your favor.  The sun is quickly setting on the “good ole’ boy” Congressmen, with investigations and probes into who is spending what and who is doing what as a natural consequence of an economic recession, Enron, and the housing market collapse; however, with the next bubble, they will be back.  Riding into town on their smiles, great family lives, and hardworking business sense; and riding out on scandal upon scandal.  But, I’m not sure another exterminator would be able to do it quite like DeLay, and be even close to as successful.

[iii] Tom D. DeLay & Stephen Mansfield, No Retreat, No Surrender: One American’s Fight, 17 (Sentinel HC 2007).

[iv] Id. at 18-19.

[v] Lou Dobose & Jan Reid, The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress, 15 (Public Affairs 2004).

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id. at 16.

[viii] Id. at 20.

[ix] Dobose, The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress at 20.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id. at 21.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Dobose, The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress at 22.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id. at 22-23.

[xvi] Id. at 25-26.

[xvii] Dobose, The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress at 25-26.

[xviii] Id.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Id.

[xxvii] State v. DeLay, 208 S.W.3d 603,

[xxviii] State v. DeLay, 2011 WL 97552 (Tex. 331st Crim. Dist., Jan. 10, 2011).

[xxx] DeLay v. State, 2013 WL 5288856 (Tex. App.-Austin, Sept. 19, 2013).

[xxxi] DeLay v. State, 2013 WL 5288856, 9-15 (Tex. App.-Austin, Sept. 19, 2013).

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