By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A lawyer for former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay asked a Texas appeals court on Wednesday to overturn the Republican's 2010 convictions for money laundering and conspiracy, calling the case "the most nakedly political prosecution I've seen."
Known as "The Hammer" for his tough political tactics, DeLay was found guilty of conspiring to illegally funnel $190,000 in corporate campaign donations to Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature in the 2002 elections.
DeLay was sentenced in January 2011 to three years in prison but has been free pending the appeal.
During oral arguments before a three-judge panel of the Texas Third Court of Appeals in Austin on Wednesday, DeLay's lawyer, Brian Wice, told justices that DeLay did not violate the law. The panel, composed of two Republicans and one Democrat, could take months to render a decision.
DeLay, who did not attend Wednesday's hearing, has argued that he could not receive a fair trial in heavily Democratic Travis County, but the Travis County district attorney's office said the trial judge fully considered that issue.
"Mr. DeLay received a very thorough and fair trial," Assistant District Attorney Holly Taylor said.
Wice said the case involved an unwarranted use of the money-laundering statute to criminalize conduct that was not criminal. He said the transaction the prosecution said constituted money laundering was conducted with checks, not cash, and therefore did not meet the definition of funds covered by the law at the time.
Wice told the court the case was a "partisan saga of sound and fury." He told reporters after the hearing: "This was the most nakedly political prosecution I've seen."
"While you may believe that what Tom did was wrong, unethical, knuckleheaded, whatever - it wasn't illegal," Wice told reporters. "In this country, unless I didn't get that memo, we don't put people in prison for conduct that's not criminal."
'NOTIONS OF COMMON SENSE'
Taylor said in an interview that Wice's argument was an overly technical interpretation of the money-laundering statute that "violates notions of common sense."
"We don't want a situation where a drug dealer can evade a money laundering conviction" by using checks, Taylor told the justices.
Judge Pat Priest sentenced DeLay to five years for money laundering and three years for conspiracy but allowed him to serve probation in lieu of the five-year term.
DeLay's appeal has been slowed in part because three Republican justices recused themselves and a Democrat was removed after DeLay's lawyer argued that she had made anti-Republican remarks. Taylor said on Wednesday that she was recovering from West Nile virus but that she showed up because she did not want to further postpone the case.
DeLay's sentence capped a downward spiral for the flamboyant Texas dealmaker and former owner of a pest-control company who had sought to rehabilitate his image by competing on the popular television show "Dancing with the Stars."
DeLay was elected to the U.S. House in 1984 and rose eventually to the No. 2 position behind the speaker. He earned a reputation as a master vote-counter and prolific fundraiser.
In 1994, DeLay was part of the "Republican Revolution" that seized control of the House from the Democrats for the first time in 40 years.
He resigned from the House in 2006 after it became public that he had ties to Jack Abramoff, a former Republican lobbyist snared in a federal investigation of influence peddling in Washington. Two of DeLay's former aides pleaded guilty to corruption. DeLay denied any wrongdoing.
(Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Greg McCune and Will Dunham)