AUSTIN, Texas — Jury selection began Tuesday in the trial of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is facing charges he illegally funneled corporate money to help Republicans in Texas legislative races in 2002.
Before jury selection began, DeLay smiled and held the hand of his wife Christine as he entered a courthouse in Travis County.
"I feel great, absolutely great," said DeLay, one of the most polarizing politicians during former President George W. Bush's administration. "I'm not worried at all."
DeLay, who says he committed no crime, has been pressing for a trial since he was indicted five years ago.
"It's about time. It's about time," DeLay said Tuesday about his trial, which had been slowed down by appeals of pretrial rulings.
The jury was expected to be chosen from a group of nearly 90 people, part of an initial pool of 320 people. Senior Judge Pat Priest said he expected a jury to be chosen by Wednesday.
Testimony in the case was set to begin Monday, the eve of Election Day, with the trial lasting at least three weeks.
DeLay's attorneys were expected to question potential jurors about any biases they might have against the former Republican lawmaker. His attorneys — fearing DeLay could not get a fair trial in Austin, the most Democratic city in one of the nation's most Republican states — unsuccessfully tried to get the trial moved.
DeLay has said the charges were politically motivated by Ronnie Earle, the Democratic former Travis County district attorney who originally brought the case.
Prosecutors have said Earle, who retired in 2008, did not seek the indictment based on politics.
The 63-year-old 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. DeLay has chosen for the judge, not the jury, to sentence him if he's convicted.
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 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 DeLay that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004.
Ellis and Colyandro, who face charges that are less serious than those against DeLay, will be tried later. A previous charge alleging the three men had engaged in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws was dismissed.
DeLay was once one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, earning the nickname "the Hammer" for his heavy-handed style in bringing recalcitrant members of the GOP into line for votes.
But the criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of his ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, forced DeLay to step down as majority leader and eventually to resign after representing suburban Houston for 22 years. The Justice Department has since ended its federal investigation into DeLay's ties to Abramoff without filing any charges against DeLay.
Since his indictment in 2005, DeLay has been mostly out of public view except for a stint competing on ABC's hit show "Dancing With the Stars." He withdrew after an injury. DeLay now runs a consulting firm based in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land.