'The criminalization of politics'

Sunday, November 28, 2010; 8:48 PM

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) schemed to get around a Texas law prohibiting corporate contributions to political campaigns. Mr. DeLay's state political action committee accepted $190,000 in (legal) corporate contributions. A PAC official wrote a check for that amount to the Republican National Committee, helpfully including a list of candidates for the Texas statehouse and the amounts they were to receive. The RNC did Mr. DeLay's bidding - and the ensuing GOP takeover of the state legislature allowed Republicans to engineer a redistricting plan that helped defeat five Democratic incumbents in the next election.

This was a clear end run around the Texas election law. It is less clear, however, that this behavior fits the definition of money-laundering or should be prosecuted and punished using that criminal offense. Corporate contributions to political candidates are a felony under Texas law. But at the time of Mr. DeLay's actions, the state's general conspiracy statute did not cover election law violations. Texas courts threw out prosecutors' efforts to charge Mr. DeLay with a conspiracy to violate election laws - leaving only the charges of money-laundering and conspiracy to engage in money-laundering, of which Mr. DeLay was convicted Friday. In Texas, as elsewhere, money-laundering is defined as knowingly using "the proceeds of criminal activity," such as cash from drug deals.

But it was legal for corporations to donate to Mr. DeLay's political action committee, so it's fair to question how the cash sent to and from the RNC was transformed into criminal "proceeds." Mr. DeLay's lawyers presented testimony from three current and former RNC officials that such money swaps were common transactions for political parties.

Mr. DeLay's conduct was wrong. It was typical of his no-holds-barred approach to political combat. But when Mr. DeLay, following the conviction, assailed "the criminalization of politics," he had a fair point.

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