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Why the Republicans' hammer got nailed

Tom DeLay was George Bush's voice in Congress. Now he is facing life in prison. David Usborne charts a spectacular fall

When the Texas judge had done delivering the two guilty verdicts late Wednesday, the suddenly convicted man – former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – gave his daughter and wife a hug each and whispered words to the effect: don't think badly of me, this was rigged from the start.

What Mr DeLay, a Republican once known as "The Hammer" for his uncompromising manner of battle with Democrats, actually said was that he always knew he could never get a fair trial in Austin, the state capital and about the only few square miles of Texas land that might still be called liberal. DeLay believes that had he been tried elsewhere, like in his own home of Houston, he would have been acquitted.

But whether he liked it or not, they were in Austin. And so yesterday, while the rest of the land stopped to eat turkey and cranberry stuffing for Thanksgiving, Mr DeLay was left to ponder his long and remarkable slide to humiliation. Aged 64, he was also surely wondering about prison stripes. Sentencing in the case is set for 20 December and one of the two charges alone could technically put him behind bars for the rest of his life.

If the outcome was not, in fact, predictable – the jury took 19 hours to ponder the highly complicated campaign funding case and appeared earlier this week to be headed down a cul-de-sac – the Schadenfreude (or in some instances barely disguised glee) that the guilty verdicts triggered among American liberals surely was. "Hammer to the Slammer!" yelled a headline on the Daily Beast website.

There remains the possibility that aggressive legal manoeuvring – the defence team has promised an appeal – or perhaps a pardon from Texas's deeply conservative governor, Rick Perry, might just allow DeLay to enjoy retirement in freedom. But retirement it will be. You can no longer find anyone, even among his friends, who doesn't think his seat at America's political table has been taken away from good.

DeLay was first elected to represent suburban Houston in Congress back when Ronald Reagan was president. His journey to the pinnacle of power among Republicans began when Newt Gingrich led the landslide takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, which made DeLay party whip. In 2002, he replaced Dick Armey as the House Majority Leader. He used the post aggressively to consolidate the power of his party, of its conservative wing and of himself.

"DeLay ruled his roost with an iron fist that makes Nancy Pelosi look like Mary Poppins," Eric Alterman, a Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College, wrote yesterday, alluding to the outgoing Democratic Speaker. "The Republicans, in those days, thought they could get away with anything."

DeLay's relentless rise came to a juddering halt when ties began to surface between him and the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including a golfing trip to Scotland paid for by the powerful lobbyist. The scandal deeply embarrassed the Republican Party and helped pave the way for the Democrat takeover of the House in 2006. Abramoff and two DeLay aides eventually pleaded guilty to corruption charges. No charges were filed against DeLay.

But worse trouble was brewing in Texas, where a District Attorney named Ronnie Earle had launched an investigation into claims of illegal campaign contributions orchestrated by DeLay in 2002 to Republican candidates running that year for the Texas state legislature. Mr Earle has retired and the exact nature of the charges changed over the years. But it is that same scheme that has now bought DeLay down. Charges were first brought against him in 2005 and DeLay resigned from Congress the next year.

After limping out of Washington, DeLay was mostly quiet. When he did surface, it was in ways that can barely have helped to restore his reputation. He was a contestant on Dancing with the Stars in 2009 and briefly joined the "birther movement" that contented Barack Obama is not American.

At the heart of the Texas case was a sort of campaign donation shell game born out of state rules that made it illegal for corporations to contribute directly to candidates. Jury members heard how a Political Action Committee associated with DeLay in Texas took $190,000 from private company donations, then sent it to an arm of the Republican National Committee in Washington, which in turn distributed it to seven Republican candidates running for the state legislature in Texas. Six of them went on to win.

It was a kind of political money-laundering operation that had very important consequences. With the help of those six victories, Republicans took back control of the Texas legislature for the first time since the end of slavery. But most important was this: that same legislature was later in charge of a deeply controversial redrawing of constituency boundaries in the state that helped DeLay significantly to reduce the number of Democrats sent by the Lone Star state to the US Congress in Washington.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that to Mr DeLay and his lawyers the verdicts of this week smell a lot like political retribution. "This is an abuse of power. It's a miscarriage of justice, and I still maintain that I am innocent," DeLay told a scrum of reporters as he left the courthouse. "The criminalisation of politics undermines our very system and I'm very disappointed in the outcome." The defence had claimed throughout the three-week trial that DeLay had never done anything wrong because the money had indeed come from the party in Washington and not corporate entities.

"It's not the same money," Dick DeGuerin, the lead defence lawyer said in opening arguments. "No money was laundered." That his client was found guilty of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering was "a terrible miscarriage of justice", he added. "To say I'm shocked is an understatement." But Rosemary Lehmberg, the DA who replaced Earle on the case, begged to differ.

"This was about holding public officials accountable, that no one is above the law and all persons have to abide by the law, no matter how powerful or lofty the position he or she might hold," she said.

Similar sentiments were expressed yesterday by the numerous watchdog groups in Washington that try to keep track of the deeply murky world of money and American politics. "While Mr DeLay long managed to escape the consequences of his corrupt rein over Congress, thankfully, the law has finally caught up with him," noted Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility in Washington.

The irony will not have escaped Mr DeLay that a decision by the US Supreme Court earlier this year significantly loosened restrictions on corporate donations in campaigns. But that is now and Texas in 2002 was then.

For the new class of Republican leadership in Washington headed by John Boehner, the soon-to-be House Speaker, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the downfall of Delay offers many a sobering lesson. Boehner has promised to run a more open-door House with less of the shadowy deal-making that DeLay and his allies so excelled in. To every politician in the US it is a reminder that the line between creative use of donations and breaking the law is a thin one.

"It will put more people on notice that something which by one perspective might be considered as legal on the other can be characterised as money laundering," said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia University Law School in New York.

The Republican connections

Jack Abramoff

DeLay once called the disgraced Washington lobbyist one of his "closest and dearest friends". DeLay's aides were directly linked to the lobbying scandal for which Abramoff served more than three years in prison, though DeLay was not charged.

Rush Limbaugh

The Conservative shock-jock was such good friends with DeLay that he endorsed the convicted fraudster by writing the foreword for his memoirs.

Sean Hannity

Another highly influential Conservative talk show host, Sean Hannity wrote the preface for DeLay's book 'No retreat, No Surrender: One American's Fight'.

George W Bush

Fellow Texan and one of the president's closest aides, DeLay was the second most powerful politician in the House of Representatives for the Bush administration, playing a key role in pushing through the Bush agenda .

Roy Blunt

High-profile Senator-elect for Missouri, Blunt was elected to succeed DeLay as House of Representatives majority whip. Through DeLay, the Texan has been linked with Abramoff's scandals – though denies any wrongdoing.

Enjoli Liston