Friday, March 21, 2014
Court to Review Tom Delay's Case | Last Word
Tom Delay is back in trouble.
Do you remember Tom Delay?
I don’t blame you if you don’t. Maybe you don’t watch Dancing with the Stars.
It’s been nearly 10 years since the once powerful congressional Republican whip was indicted on money laundering charges involving a political action committee he had set up.
It took six years for prosecutors to win a conviction and a sentence of three years in prison.
But last September, a state appeals court in Austin overturned the conviction.
Two Republican justices voted to overturn the conviction, a Democratic justice to uphold it.
This week the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest court for criminal matters, agreed to review the Austin court’s decision.
If the high court splits, it won’t be along party lines. It has no Democrats.
Yet Delay shouldn’t be overly optimistic.
For one thing the court’s chief judge, Sharon Keller, has described herself as “pro-prosecution,” and she has never voted in such a way as to suggest she is blind-folded and holding an honest scale.
And she is usually in the majority.
For a second, the high court already overruled the Austin appeals court when it sided with two of Delay’s cohorts in the alleged money laundering scheme.
To understand the scheme, you need to understand the fundamentals of Texas campaign finance law.
It’s pretty simple. Donors can give as much as they want.
Million-dollar contributions aren’t uncommon, but they must be reported so that the public knows who is bankrolling their leaders.
Second, since 1903, when railroads owned the Texas Legislature, it has been illegal for corporations and unions to donate directly to candidates.
Under recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, corporations can give to “independent” groups supporting candidates, but states can still ban them from giving directly to the candidates.
It is undisputed what Delay’s Texans for a Republican Majority did.
Delay raised about $600,000 from corporations all over the country for the political action committee.
Delay’s group could not give that corporate money to its favored candidates.
So it gave $190,000 to the Republican National Committee.
Delay’s group also gave the RNC a list of seven candidates for the Texas Legislature and a “suggested” amount for each one.
The RNC, drawing from a separate account, then gave exactly the suggested amounts to the seven – for a total of exactly $190,000.
Lawyers for Delay’s two cohorts argued that – and I’m not making this up – it wasn’t money laundering because the $190,000 was given to the RNC by check, not by unmarked greenbacks.
An all-Republican three-judge panel of the Austin appeals court happily agreed, but the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed them.
This time the argument is more subtle.
Texas law says money laundering is when you take illegal money and make it legal.
The Austin appeals court majority ruled that the corporations didn’t intend for the money to be used illegally so it wasn’t illegal, and therefore filtering it through the Republican National Committee wasn’t money laundering.
The dissenting judge, however, noted that brochures used by Delay’s group to raise the money made such promises as these:
“TRMPAC is focused on raising and giving funds directly to Republican candidates for state house, state senate, and potentially all statewide offices.”
And: “Your support today will go directly to help Republican candidates in Texas successfully run and win their campaigns.”
The dissenting judge said it was the jurors’ job to determine the corporations’ intent in the light of this evidence.
The majority said no reasonable juror could convict.
Now the issue goes to a high court that is both entirely Republican and heavily pro-prosecution.
I’m not placing any bets.