Let’s begin this discussion with a stipulation. I am a former Democratic congressman from Texas and no friend of Tom DeLay.
That, however, does not change the facts involved in the felony criminal indictments handed down Sept. 28 and Oct. 3 by a grand jury in Texas against DeLay. It is worth it to closely examine this case rather than listen to all the partisan rhetoric coming out of the Republican party in Washington.
First, it has been against the law in Texas for 100 years to use corporate money to influence elections. While Texas politics tend to be wild and wooly, we have long banned contributions by corporations to candidates for state and local office.
The indictments handed down by the Travis County (Austin) grand jury describe a scheme to circumvent Texas law by a state political action committee established and controlled by DeLay.
Here’s how it worked: This committee (Texans for a Republican Majority} solicited $155,000 in corporate contributions from companies such as Sears Roebuck and Bacardi, and sent that money, along with another $35,000 (for a total of $190,000), to a subcommittee established by the Republican National Committee to help local and state candidates. Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) also sent along a list of seven state candidates in Texas who were to receive this $190,000.
The Republican National Committee then sent checks totaling the exact $190,000 amount to these seven candidates out of one of its non-corporate accounts.
The allegation is that DeLay and two of his employees “washed” this $190,000 in corporate money through the Republican National Committee, having the RNC make contributions that would have been illegal had they been made directly by TRMPAC.
The issue that will need to be decided by a judge and jury in Texas is whether or not DeLay and his employees can do something indirectly that they are prohibited from doing directly.
DeLay has made a career out of living on the edge, pushing the envelope between ethical and unethical conduct — and now between legal and illegal conduct. He has been admonished three times by the House Ethics Committee for various actions deemed to be of questionable ethical behavior.
What are DeLay’s defenses to the criminal charges in Texas — other than rhetoric claiming that they are just a partisan attack against him?
First, he could contend that the money sent by the Republican National Committee to Texas candidates was legal (non-corporate funds) and that it was just a coincidence that the total amount ($190,000) was the same his committee sent forward in corporate funds, and that it was just a coincidence that the RNC gave to the exact candidates his committee specified in writing. This may strain credibility, but it certainly is something his lawyers can argue.
Second, DeLay may say that his two employees were acting independently of him, and that he had no idea they were engaging in illegal money laundering. The two aides being charged are very closely tied to DeLay’s political activities, and it is possible that one or both of them are now cooperating with the prosecution. Thus, it may be very difficult for DeLay to argue that they were acting on their own.
Third, DeLay may argue that the Texas statute is vague, and was never intended to cover a situation like the one described in the indictment. Defendants make this argument all the time, and sometimes they succeed — even though a ban on corporate contributions has been on the books for a very long time in Texas and everyone engaged in politics in my state knows corporate contributions are illegal.
The attack on the local district attorney, Ronnie Earle, alleging that he is simply a partisan Democratic hack doesn’t hold water. Earle has indicted both Democrats and Republicans over the years, and is not universally loved by members of his own party for that reason.
DeLay deserves his day in court. The public deserves straight information about what happened in this case, not just more partisan spin.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.