The real scandal, as the adage goes, is what’s legal, and the fact that an Appellate Court in Texas on Thursday overturned the conviction of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay doesn’t mean that what he did was kosher.
DeLay was found guilty of money laundering in 2010 for taking corporate “soft-money” donations and swapping them for unrestricted “hard money” before distributing the cash to state legislative candidates in Texas. Corporations are not allowed to donate directly to candidates under state law.
But Thursday, the Texas Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled “the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain DeLay’s convictions.” Essentially, the majority ruled, prosecutors hadn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the donations were intended to be used for improper purposes, so the money wasn’t dirty to begin with and thus wasn’t laundered.
From the opinion overturning the conviction:
DeLay did not dispute any of the transfer-of-funds transactions or that the Election Code prohibited corporations from making campaign contributions to Texas candidates. DeLay’s defensive theory, among others, was that none of the transfers was illegal—that they were structured to comply with the campaign finance laws—and, therefore, there were no proceeds of criminal activity to support money laundering or the conspiracy to commit money laundering. He contended that trading soft money for hard money was legal and commonly done by both political parties at that time.
In other words, DeLay doesn’t dispute the fact that he laundered money in the colloquial sense of the word, only that he laundered money in the criminal sense. The law was clearly intended to prohibit corporate donations to candidates, but it was written in such a way that it left a loophole DeLay was able to use to turn illegal contributions into legal ones through a few quick bank transfers.
And even that contention is disputable, as Chief Justice Woodfin Jones noted in his dissent. It’s easy to conclude that “relevant corporate contributions to [DeLay’s PAC] were made with the intent that they be used to support individual candidates or be put to other purposes not authorized [by the law],” Jones wrote. For instance, brochures and marketing materials used to solicit donations for the PAC included statements such as: Texans for a Republican Majority “is focused on raising and giving funds directly to Republican candidates for state house, state senate, and potentially all statewide offices.”
The truth is, DeLay is right—shady dealings happen all the time in both parties, and the vast majority of those involved will never go to prison or even get investigated. And now, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, most of the restrictions on corporate contributions have been lifted anyway.
But for campaign finance reformers, DeLay’s conviction was a rare example of a broken system actually holding someone accountable, an important example to everyone in politics that even one of the most powerful men in Washington was not above the law.
“During his time in Congress, no one did more to undermine federal and state campaign finance laws than Tom DeLay. It is deplorable that an Appellate Court has overturned Mr. DeLay’s fair and just conviction on money-laundering charges,” Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the good government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said in a statement. “It is a sad day for all Americans when Tom DeLay—one of the most corrupt politicians to ever walk the halls of the Capitol—once again slithers away.”
Now, DeLay serves as an example of what $12 million in legal fees can buy you.