Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tom DeLay convicted for illegally laundering corporate money to finance Texas elections

I suppose this falls into the category of Better Late Than Never. Mark Kleiman can't resist an appropriate pun, "Justice DeLayed, but not denied". According to the AP story:
Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — once one of the most powerful and feared Republicans in Congress — was convicted Wednesday on charges he illegally funneled corporate money to Texas candidates in 2002.

Jurors deliberated for 19 hours before returning guilty verdicts against DeLay on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He faces up to life in prison on the money laundering charge. [....]
"Life in prison" is a hypothetical possibility because the money-laundering charge carries a potential maximum sentence of 99 years, and a separate conspiracy charge carries up to 20 years. No one believes his actual sentence will come anywhere near either of these figures.
Prosecutors said DeLay, who once held the No. 2 job in the House of Representatives and whose heavy-handed style earned him the nickname "the Hammer," used his political action committee to illegally channel $190,000 in corporate donations into 2002 Texas legislative races through a money swap. [....]

Prosecutors said DeLay conspired with two associates, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, to use his Texas-based PAC to send $190,000 in corporate money to an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee, or RNC. The RNC then sent the same amount to seven Texas House candidates. Under Texas law, corporate money can't go directly to political campaigns.

Prosecutors claim the money helped Republicans take control of the Texas House. That enabled the GOP majority to push through a Delay-engineered congressional redistricting plan that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004 — and strengthened DeLay's political power.

DeLay's attorneys argued the money swap resulted in the seven candidates getting donations from individuals, which they could legally use in Texas. [....]

DeLay has chosen to have Senior Judge Pat Priest sentence him. He faces five years to life in prison on the money laundering charge and two to 20 years on the conspiracy charge. He also would be eligible for probation.

The 2005 criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of DeLay's ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, ended his 22-year political career representing suburban Houston. The Justice Department probe into DeLay's ties to Abramoff ended without any charges filed against DeLay.
DeLay's problem was that a Texas law going back to 1903 prohibits corporations from donating money to candidates. He tried to work out a tricky way to evade this restriction, but got caught.

This case was set in motion by Ronnie Earle, then District Attorney of Travis County—which includes the state capital of Austin—who first managed to obtain a grand jury indictment of DeLay in 2005. (At the time, Earle happened to be the only Democrat in Texas with state-wide prosecutorial jurisdiction, and the same is true of his successor.) Years of legal maneuvering, delays, and postponements then followed. But eventually, as Mark Kleiman notes, Ronnie Earle has been vindicated.

DeLay and his lawyers will undoubtedly appeal. When I saw the news, I couldn't help wondering whether the Supreme Court's notorious recent decision in the Citizens United case might get him off the hook by allowing them to challenge the constitutionality of the Texas law he broke. But after a few moments' reflection, my (highly non-expert) sense is that this probably won't save him. The Supreme Court's decision held that corporations have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence election campaigns—but not necessarily to contribute money to the candidates. We'll see, I guess.

--Jeff Weintraub