Updated: 4:35 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, 2012 | Posted: 10:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 9, 2012
It took five minutes for Capitol figure John Colyandro to end a decade-long saga that swept his boss, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, out of Congress and politics altogether.
Colyandro, the last individual with charges pending in the DeLay money-laundering case, pleaded guilty Friday to lesser charges of accepting illegal political contributions during the 2002 state legislative elections.
He received one-year deferred adjudication on two Class A misdemeanor charges, meaning there will be no final conviction on his record if he successfully completes unsupervised probation. He also was fined $8,000.
A decade ago, Colyandro ran the day-to-day activities at the Austin-based Texans for a Republican Majority, the DeLay political committee that swapped $190,000 of corporate money for an equal amount of legal campaign donations from an arm of the Republican National Committee.
State law forbids corporations from donating directly to political campaigns.
On Friday, Colyandro’s appearance in state district court showed how much had changed over the past 10 years. Colyandro, 48, was accompanied by his second wife and new baby. And after the five-minute appearance before Judge David Crain, Colyandro shook hands with the prosecutors who had pursued him for so long.
Some things haven’t changed. Colyandro remains a conservative player at the Capitol as executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition, a group of state lawmakers.
Despite Friday’s plea, Colyandro continues to face civil litigation arising from the 2002 election.
DeLay remains free on bail, pending his appeal of his three-year prison sentence and conviction on conspiracy and money-laundering charges.
A third co-defendant, Jim Ellis, DeLay’s right-hand political staffer in Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty in June to a felony charge of making an illegal campaign contribution. Ellis, who negotiated the $190,000 exchange, received four years of probation and was fined $10,000.
Seven of eight indicted corporations that donated money have settled their cases, mostly by cooperating with prosecutors, but charges are pending against Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, a nonprofit corporation made up of 14 of the nation’s largest nursing home chains at the time the investigation began.
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg defended the results of the time-consuming cases.
“I am satisfied that the sentences for DeLay, Ellis and Colyandro are fair and accurately reflect their respective roles in the offense,” she said.
Joe Turner, Colyandro’s attorney, said prosecutors would have had a hard time trying Colyandro.
“Given the evidence against John, it was going to be a challenge for them,” Turner said.
Colyandro’s plea bargain includes a provision, similar to one offered to Ellis, that takes into account the possibility that the current state law might be challenged.
Since the DeLay case began, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment allows corporations to spend unlimited sums independently of campaigns.
If the state law is overturned and all appeals have been exhausted, prosecutors agreed not to oppose Ellis’ filing a motion to be released from his probation.
Turner suggested that might be less important for Colyandro unless it figures into the civil litigation brought by Democratic candidates that DeLay’s committee defeated in 2002.
“Truthfully, if it’s unsupervised probation and there’s not a conviction, it’s like it never happened anyway,” Turner said.
In 2002, as the U.S. House majority leader, DeLay was second only to President George W. Bush as the most powerful Texan in Washington, D.C.
DeLay was intent on Republicans taking over state government in the 2002 election so the Legislature could redraw congressional districts to favor the GOP and increase his hold on his leadership role.
But Austin lobbyists were reluctant to give money to DeLay to defeat Democratic incumbents with Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, the last Democrat to lead the state House of Representatives, still in office.
Instead, DeLay turned to out-of-state corporate donors who had issues pending in the U.S. House. Even then, DeLay’s political committee was in such a rush to raise money in the final days of the campaign that Colyandro loaned the committee $40,000.
It was Colyandro who sent to Ellis a check — written on the committee’s corporate account but with the amount left blank — as Ellis negotiated the money swap with an division of the Republican National Committee.
A few days after Ellis filled out the check for $190,000, the Republican National Committee contributed the same amount to seven Republicans running for the Texas House of Representatives.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify how many corporations have settled their cases.