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By W. Gardner Selby February 17, 2016

Gary Cobb won guilty jury verdicts against Tom DeLay but county lost on appeal

It’s no secret: A Democratic candidate for Travis County district attorney starred in the high-profile prosecution of a felled U.S. House majority leader found guilty of campaign finance violations.

A May 2015 Austin American-Statesman news story summed up: "Travis County prosecutor Gary Cobb persuaded jurors in 2010 that former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay had illegally channeled corporate funds to Texas candidates."

Still, an adviser to one of Cobb’s opponents in the March 2016 primary asked us to gauge a TV ad posted on Cobb’s campaign website. In the spot, Cobb faces the camera and says: "You trusted me to take on Tom DeLay — and we won." By email, Jeff Crosby, an adviser to candidate Margaret Moore, noted that while a local jury found DeLay guilty, his convictions were thrown out on appeal.

We asked Katie Naranjo, a consultant to Cobb’s campaign, about Cobb’s victory statement.

By email, Naranjo told us Cobb "was entrusted as lead trial lawyer" in DeLay’s trial "and Gary (and his trial team, other attorneys, investigators and support staff—that is, ‘we’) won the trial."

Naranjo acknowledged the convictions were overturned. Still, she wrote, "Gary was not the appellate lawyer, which was another team. Trial lawyers often win a trial, and then that result might get overturned on appeal. That doesn’t mean that the trial lawyers didn’t win the trial."

News accounts

Let’s revisit the DeLay turning points as depicted in Statesman news stories, starting with the trial.

In November 2010, eight years after the county launched its investigation, a jury found DeLay, then 63, guilty of laundering corporate money into political donations during the 2002 elections. His indictment on the charges earlier led him to give up the leadership post; next, he left the House.

From the Statesman account of the verdict:

DeLay, a Republican whose nickname was "The Hammer" because of his heavy-handed leadership style, was accused of conspiring to funnel $190,000 of corporate money through the Republican National Committee, which sent $190,000 in campaign donations to seven GOP candidates for the Texas House.

Prosecutors argued that DeLay conspired to launder corporate money into political donations as the first step in creating a GOP majority in the Texas House. It later redrew the state's congressional districts to favor Republicans, which prosecutors said bolstered DeLay's hold on his leadership post in Washington.

State law prohibits corporations from giving donations to candidates directly or indirectly. Prosecutors earlier said they thought the DeLay case is the first such criminal charge ever filed over the state's century-old law on corporate contributions in state political races.

In January 2011, DeLay was sentenced to three years in prison. But he also was released on a $10,000 bond pending appeals avowed by his lead trial lawyer, Dick DeGuerin.

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Cobb's role

Cobb appears to have led the county’s courtroom team.

A web search led us to a 2011 commentary by Rob Kepple of the Texas District & County Attorneys Association stating Cobb was part of a "seasoned team" of prosecutors in DeLay’s trial including Beverly Mathews, Steven Brand and Holly Taylor.

Separately to our inquiry, the Travis County district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, said Cobb was the county’s lead counsel in the trial. Lehmberg said: "He was not as active in the appeals process," specifying that Taylor steered that task.

Appeals courts

On Sept. 19, 2013, the state’s 3rd Court of Appeals sided with DeLay and overturned the convictions won by Cobb.

In a 2-1 ruling that broke along party lines, the judges said the prosecution had failed to prove "proceeds of criminal activity." It further noted that the jury on two occasions had asked trial Judge Pat Priest whether the $190,000 was "illegal at the start of the transaction" or "procured by illegal means originally." And, the court said, prosecutors didn’t prove that point — a critical element to conspiring to launder money — and the judge never answered the jurors’ questions.

More than a year passed. But on Oct. 1, 2014, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, splitting 8-1 along party lines, upheld the lower court. DeLay’s political committee could legally donate corporate money to the Republican National Committee and the national organization could legally make political donations to Texas candidates, the court found, and the agreement to swap money didn’t constitute conspiracy -- and DeLay didn’t "knowingly" violate the law.

District attorney comments

At the time, Lehmberg said in a written statement the court had effectively repealed the state law prohibiting corporate donations to candidates and placed an impossible burden on the state to prosecute violators of the ban. "The decision undermines the fairness and integrity of our elections," she said.

For this fact check, we asked Lehmberg if Travis County "won" against DeLay. She credited Cobb with winning at trial. But, she said by phone, "ultimately, we didn’t" prevail.

Our ruling

Cobb says Travis County residents "trusted me to take on Tom DeLay--and we won."

Cobb and the county won a jury verdict against DeLay. However, the convictions were tossed by an appeals court; its ruling was upheld by the state's highest criminal court of appeals.

We rate Cobb's claim Mostly False.

MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Our Sources

Email, Jeff Crosby, consultant, Margaret Moore campaign, Feb. 16, 2016

News stories, Austin American-Statesman, "DeLay convicted of laundering corporate money into political donations," Nov. 24, 2010; "DeLay sentenced to 3 years in prison, freed on appeal bond," Jan. 10, 2011;  "Court overturns DeLay’s criminal convictions," Sept. 19, 2013; "Texas’ top criminal court upholds dismissal of Tom DeLay convictions," Oct. 1, 2014;  "Travis County prosecutor Gary Cobb announces run for district attorney," May 6, 2015

Telephone interview, Rosemary Lehmberg, Travis County district attorney, Feb. 17, 2016

Commentary, "And you think your cases are tough," Rob Kepple, executive director, Texas District & County Attorneys Association, The Prosecutor, March-April 2011

Email, Katie Naranjo, Gary Cobb campaign, Feb. 17, 2016

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Gary Cobb won guilty jury verdicts against Tom DeLay but county lost on appeal

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