TOM DELAY, CONVICTED FELON…. Late Wednesday afternoon, disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) picked up a new title: convicted felon. A New York Times editorial summarized the story nicely.
During his tenure leading House Republicans, Mr. DeLay established a new low in ethical conduct among Congressional leaders. He put family members on his campaign payroll, took lavish trips paid for by lobbyists and twisted the arms of K Street lobbyists to ante up and donate to his party’s candidates and hire more Republicans. But his conviction on Wednesday came from something else entirely, a scheme to steer corporate contributions to Republicans in the Texas Legislature.
Texas bans corporations from giving money directly to state candidates, just as federal law does at the national level. But Mr. DeLay figured out a way around that barrier: In 2002, he used his state political action committee to channel $190,000 in corporate contributions to the Republican National Committee, which then donated the same amount to seven Texas House candidates.
The scheme wasn’t lacking in ingenuity. Texas had completed its post-2000-census redistricting, but DeLay wasn’t satisfied with the way in which state lawmakers had drawn the lines. So he hatched a plan without modern precedent, deciding to pursue re-redistricting. But in order to hatch his gambit, he’d need some more GOP allies in the Texas legislature, so he arranged to launder some corporate money into the accounts of seven Republican candidates.
Six of them won; re-redistricting occurred; and the GOP majority in Congress grew, just as DeLay had planned.
The minor flaw in all of this is that DeLay’s scheme happened to be a felony, at least according to prosecutors and the members of a Texas jury. DeLay’s defense was largely built around the notion that he didn’t know about the money-laundering until after it had occurred, but prosecutors pointed to a 2005 interview with investigators in which the right-wing lawmaker said he was aware of the plan in advance. (DeLay later said he misspoke.)
At this point, DeLay is free on bail, leading up to his Dec. 20 sentencing. The convictions could carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, though no one considers that likely. DeLay’s fate, at least in the short term, is in the hands of Senior Judge Pat Priest, who may end up giving him probation. In the meantime, of course, DeLay is appealing the ruling.
As for the larger context, it’s hard not to feel a sense of schadenfreude about the developments. Tom DeLay has represented American politics at its worst — corruption, sleaze, deception, and routine abuses of power. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, Wednesday’s conviction couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate person.
It’s also worth noting that the political establishment’s approach to DeLay was, in light of the jury’s conclusion, quite wrong. We’ve been told for years that the case was a partisan witch-hunt, launched by a prosecutor intent on “criminalizing politics.”
As of late Wednesday afternoon, the conventional wisdom on DeLay is in need of an overhaul.