Ex-Texas GOP congressman convicted of fraud, conspiracy

HOUSTON (AP) - A federal jury convicted a former Texas congressman of fraud and conspiracy on Thursday for misusing charitable donations to pay for personal and political expenses.

Steve Stockman, a Republican, was accused of conspiring with two staffers to bilk conservative foundations out of at least $775,000 that was meant for charitable purposes and voter education. A campaign worker and an aide have pleaded guilty to various charges.

Stockman, 61, showed no emotion as the verdict was read in a Houston courtroom: Jurors found him guilty of 23 of the 24 counts he faced, including mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. He was found not guilty on one count of wire fraud.

The judge deemed the former congressman a flight risk and ordered him into federal custody. Stockman could face decades in prison when sentenced in August.

An FBI affidavit alleged that shortly after beginning his second term in the U.S. House in 2013, Stockman solicited $350,000 in charitable donations from an unidentified wealthy businessman on behalf of Life Without Limits. The Nevada-based nonprofit had been set up to help people through traumatic events.

The donation was solicited for the purpose of renovating a house in Washington called the Freedom House. But the check was deposited at a bank branch in Webster, Texas, into an account set up by Stockman doing business as Life Without Limits, according to the affidavit.

Financial records show that Stockman made no significant expenditures toward the purchase, renovation or operation of Freedom House, which never opened. According to the affidavit, Stockman secretly diverted the money to pay for a variety of personal expenses and to funnel contributions to his campaign under the guise that they were from other people.

Stockman's attorney, Sean Buckley, has said Stockman committed no crime in using the money as he did. Following his arrest in March 2017, Stockman said a "deep state" shadow government was targeting him.

His three-week trial included testimony from a conservative operative who said Stockman also hired people to spy on three Republican state lawmakers. Benjamin Wetmore told jurors that shortly after Stockman took office in 2013, he became concerned that one of the lawmakers, Rep. James White of Woodville, was considering a primary challenge to Stockman.

Stockman said in a text to Wetmore that White, who is black, worried him.

"Republicans love black conservatives," Stockman wrote.

Wetmore said he was hired by Stockman to oversee the surveillance. He told the court that three months of trailing White yielded nothing incriminating.

Stockman served a term in the U.S. House from 1995 until 1997, and then another from 2013 until 2015, representing an area east of Houston. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014 but lost in the Republican primary to incumbent John Cornyn, who went on to win re-election.