This was out of the blue.
Tom DeLay’s chief political aide, Jim Ellis, pleaded guilty Thursday to a felony charge of making an illegal campaign contribution during the 2002 election.
Ellis, who headed DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority political action committee, was the aide who negotiated an exchange of $190,000 of corporate money for campaign contributions to Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature, according to testimony in DeLay’s 2010 trial.
Ellis received a four-year probation and was fined $10,000 on a charge that he made a contribution of corporate money to a political party within 60 days of an election.
Under the terms of Ellis’ plea, the adjudication of the third-degree felony charge is deferred, meaning a final conviction won’t be reflected on his record if he successfully completes probation.
Ellis also cannot work for a political action committee in any capacity in which he handles or solicits corporate political contributions. There will be no travel restrictions for Ellis, who lives in Virginia.
Ellis also agreed to testify in any future legal proceedings. Charges are pending against Ellis’ co-defendant, John Colyandro of Austin, who is scheduled to appear in court Aug. 8. Colyandro was executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority, the political committee that DeLay chaired.
In exchange for Ellis’ plea, prosecutors dismissed conspiracy and money-laundering charges.
Prosecutors also agreed to cut Ellis a break in the event the state law is eventually overturned in court, which after the most recent “Citizens United” ruling you have to think is a live possibility. I must say, after all this time I did not expect someone to cop a plea, even though I have always believed that the case against Ellis and Colyandro was stronger than the one against DeLay himself. The most recent development in this case before now was last year when Judge Pat Priest recused himself after urging Ellis and Colyandro to consider accepting pleas. Funny how these things work, isn’t it?
Speaking of DeLay and recusals, we now have a pinch hitter for the Third Court of Appeals.
A San Antonio district judge was temporarily appointed to the 3rd Court of Appeals on Wednesday to help determine whether Justice Diane Henson, a Democrat, should be recused from considering Tom DeLay’s money-laundering case.
Under state appellate rules, when judges decline to recuse themselves — as Henson has done — the matter goes before the entire court to decide by a majority vote.
But three Republicans on the six-judge court have already recused themselves from hearing DeLay’s appeal, giving no reason for their removal. And the rules do not allow Henson to vote on the request.
Needing a third judge to decide DeLay’s motion to recuse, Woodie Jones, chief justice of the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, last week asked the Texas Supreme Court to name a temporary panel member.
Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson responded Wednesday by appointing San Antonio District Judge David Berchelmann Jr. to the appeals court “for as long as may be necessary to hear and rule on the motion.”
DeLay’s lawyers have said that “anti-Republican remarks” made by Henson at a state Democratic Party convention in 2006 raised questions about her impartiality.
See here and here for some background. Judge Berchelmann is there to help decide whether or not Judge Henson can hear the appeal of DeLay’s conviction. If she is removed for the appeal, a substitute will have to be named for her, since there are no more un-tainted judges on the Third Court any more. By the way, if the name “David Bedrchelmann” sounds familiar to you, it’s because he was the judge in the Sharon Keller case. That case was a mess in more ways than one, and I can’t say I was impressed by Judge Berchelmann’s performance. That’s water under the bridge now, so we’ll see what happens here.