DeLay Guilty . . . Of What, Exactly?

Tom DeLay is a sleazebag and has been found guilty by an Austin jury for skirting the law. But it may in fact be a miscarriage of justice despite the victim being as unsympathetic as it gets.

Tom DeLay, the poster boy for everything that was wrong with the last Republican majority in the House, has been found guilty of money laundering.

NYT (“Ex-House Leader DeLay Found Guilty in Texas Case“):

Tom DeLay, one of the most powerful and divisive Republican lawmakers ever to come out of Texas, was convicted Wednesday of money-laundering charges in a state trial, five years after his indictment here forced him to resign as majority leader in the House of Representatives.

After 19 hours of deliberation, a jury of six men and six women decided that Mr. DeLay was guilty of conspiring with two associates in 2002 to circumvent a state law against corporate contributions to political campaigns. He was convicted of one charge of money laundering and one charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

As the verdict was read, Mr. DeLay, 63, sat stone-faced at the defense table. Then he rose, turned, smiled and hugged his wife and then his weeping daughter in the first row of spectators. He faces between 5 and 99 years in prison, though the judge may choose probation.

A few minutes later, Mr. DeLay said outside the courtroom that he would appeal the decision. He called the prosecution a political vendetta by Democrats in the local district attorney’s office, and revenge for his role in orchestrating the 2003 redrawing of Congressional districts to elect more Republicans.

WaPo (“DeLay convicted of money-laundering charges in campaign finance scheme“):

A jury in Austin found DeLay guilty of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Punishment for the first ranges from five years to life in prison, but the former congressman from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land could receive probation.

DeLay will remain free until he is sentenced on Dec. 20.

“This case is a message from the people of the state of Texas that they want – and expect – honesty and ethics in their public officials,” said Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. “All people have to abide by the law.”

Reporters in the courtroom described DeLay as stunned by the verdict, which came after 19 hours of deliberation.

“This is an abuse of power,” the former congressman said outside the courtroom. “It’s a miscarriage of justice, and I still maintain that I am innocent. The criminalization of politics undermines our very system, and I am very disappointed in the outcome.”

I have little doubt that DeLay stretched every law and rule he could to the breaking point and have long considered him a rather sleazy fellow. But violations of Federal campaign finance legislation are civil matters, punishable by fine, not crimes.   So, how did they turn this into a local money laundering cause?   NYT:

During the three-week trial, the prosecution presented more than 30 witnesses in an effort to prove that Mr. DeLay conspired to circumvent the state law. Since 1903, Texas has prohibited corporations from giving money to candidates directly or indirectly.

Mr. DeLay was initially charged with breaking campaign finance law. But prosecutors later switched strategies because it was impossible under the law at the time to accuse someone of conspiring to break campaign finance rules, prosecutors said.

Instead, prosecutors used a novel legal theory never before tried in Texas: They argued that Mr. DeLay and two of his political operatives — John Colyandro and Jim Ellis — had violated the criminal money-laundering law.  They were charged with conspiring to funnel $190,000 in corporate donations to state candidates through the Republican National Committee.

The main facts of the case were never in dispute.  In mid-September 2002, as the election heated up, Mr. DeLay’s state political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, gave a check for $190,000 to the Republican National Committee. The money had been donated earlier in the year by various corporate lobbyists seeking to influence Mr. DeLay, several witnesses said.  On Sept. 13, the check was delivered to the R.N.C. by Mr. Ellis, who was Mr. DeLay’s top political operative in Washington and headed his federal political action committee.

At the same meeting, Mr. Ellis also gave the Republican director of political operations, Terry Nelson, a list of state candidates and an amount to be sent to each. Mr. Nelson testified that Mr. Ellis had told him the request for the swap had come from Mr. DeLay.

In early October, donations were sent from a separate account filled with individual donations to seven Republican candidates in Texas. Six of them won. Republicans took control of the Legislature for the first time in modern history and in 2003 pushed through a redistricting plan, orchestrated by Mr. DeLay, that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004 and helped him consolidate power.

I’m dubious, indeed, of “novel” applications of state laws to convict people for something other than what the statute was intended to punish.  Rather clearly, “laundering” of legally obtained money is not supposed to be a crime.  The statute is specifically aimed at criminal enterprises who earn money illegally.

Recall that, in August, the Justice Department ended a 6-year probe of DeLay without filing charges.

This is another in a long string of cases involving celebrity defendants who prosecutors “know” are guilty but can’t prove it.  So, they manufacture technical violations of other laws and persuade juries that they’re bad people who deserve to be punished.   It’s not the grossest abuse of our system — these people can at least hire good lawyers — but it’s troubling all the same.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Law and the Courts, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rick Almeida says:

    Happy Thanksgiving to you & yours, James, and to the rest of the OTB clan.

  2. James says:

    Rangle slap on the hand. Democrat judged by Democrat
    Delay maybe prison. Republican judged by Democrat (Ronnie Earl)?
    Was the judge a Clinton appointment?
    If this was working the fringe they all belong in Jail.
     
    James flat lands of Texas

  3. emily says:

    @James Joyner:

    This wasn’t about a violation of Federal campaign finance laws.  He has been convicted of violating state law.

    While the money was collected legally, it was laundered in order to fund individuals running for office who shouldn’t have gotten the money.  And DeLay conspired with others to do it.
     
    And why shouldn’t it be criminal?  It is our democracy that was manipulated and while you don’t live in Texas, I do and all of us here are living with the result of DeLay’s crime.
     
    Happy Thanksgiving.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Emily
    I understand what the technical charge is. And I agree that DeLay, in this instance in particular and with the whole K Street Project in general, was a sleazebag who, at very least, subverted the rules of fair play.  And I’m incredibly dubious about the precedent of mid-cycle redistricting, for that matter.
    If DeLay winds up going to jail, I won’t shed any tears.
    All that said, I’m very concerned about prosecutors, much less politically motivated ones, using the power of their office to manufacture crimes against people they want to go after.   Whether it’s Martha Stewart or Tom DeLay, it’s a dangerous practice.   And letting it go unchallenged in visible cases makes it more likely to go on with the indigent defendants that make up the bulk of those charged in our criminal system.

  5. Jeff says:

    he didn’t violate campaign finance laws and he didn’t violate criminal money laundering laws …  he apparently violated and hybrid …
    the appeal will last 5 minutes and this will be overturned …
     

  6. sam says:

    “And letting it go unchallenged in visible cases makes it more likely to go on with the indigent defendants that make up the bulk of those charged in our criminal system.”
    What usually happens with those folks is that the DA charges them with a major offense and a host of lesser included offenses. Then, a plea bargain is brokered, the main offense is dropped, and the defendant is sentenced to the slammer on the lesser included. There’s usually no need at all to be creative.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Sam
    Yes.  It’s called “over charging” or “stacking charges.”  Oddly, we eliminated most of that in the late 1960s and 1970s, perhaps going overboard in trying the prosecutor’s hand with technicalities.  But we’ve over-corrected now and no one much seems to care.

  8. sam says:

    I saw it commonly when I served on a grand jury.

  9. steve says:

    I take your point James, but then how do you deal with criminals like DeLay who come up with creative and innovative ways to break the law? The facts of the case are not really disputed from what I can tell. He clearly circumvented the intent of the law. I suspect he may have had legal advice suggesting that they could probably win this in court. His lawyers thought that they could spin their actions well enough to convince a jury he was innocent. They were wrong. The prosecutors responded with their own innovations. Is this likely to be applied to the indigents in our system? How many of them would have the means to launder money through a national committee? none of the indigents I have ever met.
     
    Steve

  10. Anon says:

    <blockquote>but then how do you deal with criminals like DeLay who come up with creative and innovative ways to break the law?</blockquote>
     
    Change the law.  I dislike DeLay as much as anyone and would never have voted for him, but this also strikes me as prosecutorial overreach.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @steve

    He clearly circumvented the intent of the law.  […] The prosecutors responded with their own innovations.

    I take your point. And I understand why prosecutors would feel frustrated and want to do that.  But one of our most fundamental precepts is not to punish people for things that weren’t crimes when they committed the acts.
    It’s not just political crimes that I worry about in this context. I’ve always though the RICO statute and other extraordinary measures for going after organized crime were obviously unconstitutional and dangerous.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @steve
    It’s also worth reiterating that violations of campaign finance laws are generally not crimes. Fundamentally, Texas Democrats found a creative way of turning a technically-permissible skirting of a federal civil statue into a technical violation of a state criminal law designed for an entirely different purpose.  That’s a bad thing no matter how you slice it.

  13. Herb says:

    “Fundamentally, Texas Democrats found a creative way of turning a technically-permissible skirting of a federal civil statue into a technical violation of a state criminal law designed for an entirely different purpose.”

    Okay, but how did they do that? How did Texas Democrats get that much influence over the Travis County District Attorney’s office?

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Herb

    How did Texas Democrats get that much influence over the Travis County District Attorney’s office?

    Partisan elections for DA in a heavily Democratic county. Recall that the infamous Ronnie Earl reined over the office for decades.

  15. James says:

    @ J.J.
    Sleazebag: This term seems to list to the Port side of the discussion.
    Have you used this term with anyother sleazebags (Rangle, Waters, Dodd, Franks,
    Polise, Reid, Nelson, Lousiana Purchase ?

  16. James says:

    @J.J.
    Too bad the Shela Jackson Lee excuse wasn’t argued 🙂 Sleazebag?
     
    James, flat lands of Texas
     

  17. Abdul Khan says:

    I live in Texas. I majored in Poli Sci and History in school and my focus was Houston. Tom DeLay is the epitome of the dirty politician. Texas lawmakers bend and break rules all the time, anyone remember the blank checks being handed out on the floor by Bo Pilgrim? When that went down they changed the law. Now you have to step off the floor first.
    Texas is a one party system and always has been. In my opinion this is the apex of majority tyranny, and an affront to true democracy. These people have always worked for business at the cost of the people of Texas. As a result we have some of the worst economic indicators in the nation, and our education system is broken almost to the point of no repair. We have a couple sayings here; “Thank God for Alabama” and “Would you rather live in Saudi Arabia.” It is our culture to say we are better than the worst. We will take 50th place as soon as we would 1st.
    But for a state this large with resources like we have, in Houston especially, we should be more modern. No one seems to get arrested; everyone gets shot instead armed or not it seems.
    This kind of thing has to stop. Despite how the majority of Texans hate Progressives and Liberals we could use atleast a fair, representative, share to ensure that more than the rich are protected. But Delay’s and his buddies have made some districts that go from Austin to the Valley. This is not contiguous at all. Contiguous is the law, those districts are the reality.
    I also know about Tom and Christine DeLay’s foster care neighborhood. This was how I met the both of them. I taught poetry and was impressed by the community. I was impressed by the happiness they brought. I don’t believe Tom DeLay is evil, but I do believe he has made the state much worse as a whole. I hope he spends time in jail, but not his whole life.
    And as far as twisting the law to get a conviction on something, you should see the history of prosecutorial misconduct here. DeLay’s stance combined with others like him have imprisoned countless innocent people. The small towns out here are terrifying for minorities. This is the system they have helped to set up by refusing to compromise and now it has bitten one of their biggest in the butt.
    We have one of the largest law codes and penal systems in the nation. We have done this so that anyone can be convicted for something at anytime. This is just typically not wielded against the majority members of this state.
    I am not anti-republican. I am not uber-liberal either. But Tom Delay is a bad one and he gets to serve as the example. Maybe this will help my state get into the 21st century, not just 4 cities in Texas, but my WHOLE state.

  18. Edgonzo says:

    I’m a securities lawyer, no expert at all on campaign finance law, but I strongly object to the notion that Martha Stewart was hit with a “manufactured crime”.
    She lied to the FBI, that’s what she was found guilty of, hardly the first person to have been charged with this offense. She was extremely lucky not have been charged with insider dealing in my view, the circumstantial evidence was pretty compelling – a more aggressive SEC, like what we have under Khuzami, and I’d bet good money she’d have stood trial for this too.
    But the point is, neither lying to the FBI nor insider dealing are particularly complicated legal matters, you either have the facts to support a charge or you don’t. And in Stewart’s case, they did.

  19. The statute is specifically aimed at criminal enterprises who earn money illegally.
     
    Of course, there are many who consider the Republican Party a criminal enterprise, so what’s the big deal?

  20. MichaelB says:

    This over charging causes problems for the future administration of justice as well.  After charging Martha Stewart, the white collar defense bar started telling their clients not to talk to the feds.  Unless they got immunity first, or they needed a plea (meaning they were already busted).  That basically destroyed the game plan for white collar investigations.  You can still find some witnesses of course, but darn few who are sophisticated or represented by counsel.  “Sophisticated or represented by counsel” is, in insider trading parlance anyway, usually a synonym for “witnesses who may know something”.  The outcome of the investigations making headlines the last few days will show whether a viable new strategy for these investigations has come together.  For about 5 years though, insider trading investigations were DOA.  And contrary to the usual BS claims about the SEC going on vacation, this was a direct result of the defense bar deciding that they couldn’t afford not to play hard ball.

  21. ponce says:

    Hey, they got Al Capone on tax evasion.
     
    Nobody complained.

  22. michael reynolds says:

    I want to focus on James’ point regarding stacking charges and inventing novel interpretations of law.  I have never been happy with this.  I despise DeLay, but I don’t want to see people convicted on charges of being an asshole.
     
    This feels like a stretch.  I don’t think the law should stretch in favor of prosecutors, I think if it stretches it should be in favor of defendants.  I always thought the principal was, better a guilty man go free than an innocent man be deprived of his freedom. Somehow I think that’s been reversed.
     
    That this sort of “lock ’em all up” mentality flows from conservatives who display utter indifference to justice so long as the target is a person of color or a poor person, and then ruthlessly fear-monger any prosecutorial or judicial mercy in order to win elections, does add a nice touch of irony to Mr. DeLay’s prosecution.  Sometimes you reap what you sow.

  23. Tlaloc says:

    James: “All that said, I’m very concerned about prosecutors, much less politically motivated ones, using the power of their office to manufacture crimes against people they want to go after.”
     
    That’s a valid concern, but right now our system is absolutely drowning in blatant manipulation of democracy by moneyed interests.  That’s by far an away the bigger threat and anything that helps reduce that or put a tiny spike of fear in the hearts of the vampires who are essentially running the government is worth at least considering.
     
    At some point such prosecutions might be a bigger problem than the influence buying and lobbying but we’re a long ways from that point.

  24. ponce says:

    “This feels like a stretch.”
     
    Only minorities and their easy to understand crimes should be convicted?
     
    Any Wall Street bankers been charged with anything connected to their destruction of the world’s economy yet?

  25. Michael says:

    Any Wall Street bankers been charged with anything connected to their destruction of the world’s economy yet?

    As Mr. Reynolds said, I don’t want to see people sent to prison just for being assholes.   Those bankers were greedy, stupid, arrogant, ignorant, and a whole host of other character flaws that were not actually crimes.  Sometimes people can do bad things without breaking the law.

  26. Name: Mark says:

    Remember Tom DeLay’s smiling mug shot? Today Tom has received a massive attitude adjustment. Tom isn’t smiling anymore.

  27. flataffect says:

    I agree on every point, especially about Delay being a sleasy fellow.  He reminds me of Rod Blagojevich, but if this is a precedent, a whole lot of Democrats are guilty of the money laundering too.
    Delay famously justified himself by saying that Democrats did the same things on a regular basis.  Not a sound excuse, but this wasn’t a criminal violation.  The judge should have scotched these charges at the outset.

  28. michael reynolds says:

    Michael:
     

    Those bankers were greedy, stupid, arrogant, ignorant, and a whole host of other character flaws that were not actually crimes.

     
    Of course we could enact laws against each of those characteristics.  The cost of maintaing prisons would be staggering, but just think of how empty the freeways would be.  The Washington Beltway could be turned into a park.

  29. Peterh says:

    Money laundering is the practice of engaging in financial transactions to conceal the identity, source, and/or destination of illegally gained money
    Today its definition is often expanded by government and international regulators such as the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to mean any financial transaction which generates an asset or a value as the result of an illegal act
     
    Now, there are those of you that feel the money was “not” gained illegally….and I concur……but Texas Law specifically states how corporate donated money can be spent….BugBoy violated that law in a manner that gained “value as the result of an illegal act”….case closed people…..move on…..

  30. jwest says:

    Let the verdict stand and sentence Delay to life in prison.
     
    However……..
     
    Republicans who now control the vast majority of state legislatures should begin an aggressive program to use the same standard of finding new and novel ways to prosecute democrats who they “know” are criminals, but have previously lacked the right application of laws to convict.
     
    Nothing drives home a point like payback.

  31. Victor says:

    Been an interesting month, with the Democratic ex-governor of North Carolina being convicted of a felony recently as well.
    I tend to agree that if you have to twist the law for a conviction, than it is the law that needs attention in the immediate. Seems like this is not a popular idea though, I guess it is certainly easier to twist it to your needs than fix it?

  32. Davebo says:

    “Tom DeLay is a sleazebag and has been found guilty by a Houston jury”
     
    Houston and Austin are two different cities.

  33. matt says:

    Jwest emphasizes quite elegantly the problem with modern politics…
     

  34. Draeggo says:

    So… the Hammer got hammered. Karma?

  35. sookie says:

    It’s not just political crimes that I worry about in this context. I’ve always though the RICO statute and other extraordinary measures for going after organized crime were obviously unconstitutional and dangerous.

    Amen

  36. Eric Florack says:

    I understand what the technical charge is. And I agree that DeLay, in this instance in particular and with the whole K Street Project in general, was a sleazebag who, at very least, subverted the rules of fair play.

    While that’s as may be,Perhaps someone can explain to us all how that’s any different from what the democrats have been doing upwards of 50 years, now?  Barring an answer for that, I must assume that this extra measure of prosecution is politically motivated.