Play Fair With Mr. DeLay

Monday, December 19, 2005

THERE'S NO DOUBT that former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and his political allies did their best to evade the Texas law prohibiting corporate contributions to state candidates during the critical 2002 legislative elections. Their mechanism wasn't terribly complicated (or well-disguised, if that was the intention). Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), a political committee set up by and fueled with contributions solicited by Mr. DeLay, obtained corporate checks totaling about $190,000. It sent that money to the Republican National Committee. Acting on a list supplied by a DeLay operative and drawing from a different account that didn't contain corporate money, the RNC sent sizable checks, adding up to the same amount, to seven candidates for the Texas House of Representatives.

At least in the short term, the end run worked. Republicans captured the Texas House, used their new majority to ram through an unseemly, mid-cycle redrawing of congressional districts, and picked up five Republican seats in Congress in 2004.

It remains to be seen whether all of this was legal. The Supreme Court announced last week that it would review the redistricting plan. And -- more important for Mr. DeLay -- a Texas jury may decide early next year whether those actions constituted a criminal violation and whether Mr. DeLay committed a crime. The state judge overseeing the case has dismissed one of the charges against Mr. DeLay -- conspiring to violate the election law -- because, the judge found, at the time of the transaction the state's conspiracy statute didn't include election violations. The prosecutor is appealing that part of the ruling. But the judge let stand an even more serious charge against Mr. DeLay -- that his actions amounted to money laundering.

The Texas money-laundering statute applies to anyone who "conducts, supervises, or facilitates a transaction involving the proceeds of criminal activity." It may be, as the judge found, that the money-laundering statute technically applies in this situation, but its use here strikes us as odd. Ordinarily, money laundering would be taking criminal booty -- say, drug money -- and finding a way to transform it into legitimate-looking funds. In this case, though, the "proceeds of criminal activity" -- the corporate-funded campaign checks -- are the same as the alleged criminal activity itself. Indeed, with the conspiracy charge thrown out, the money-laundering statute is being used as something of a stand-in for the election law -- except that it carries a bigger penalty. And there's always reason to pause when a prosecutor seems to be shaping the law to fit the circumstances.

None of this is to applaud Mr. DeLay's actions in Texas or elsewhere, or to say that he ought to be restored to his role as majority leader. It may be that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has more evidence than he has yet revealed about Mr. DeLay's involvement in this ugly episode. More damaging information also may emerge from the continuing federal investigation into the lobbying activities of Jack Abramoff ("one of my closest and dearest friends," Mr. DeLay once called him) and Michael Scanlon, Mr. DeLay's former communications director who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials. But the law needs to be applied with care and judgment when it comes to criminalizing political activity -- no matter who is being prosecuted.

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