Point Austin: A Hill of Beans

Tom DeLay story a profile in political corruption

Point Austin
It's difficult to get too excited about a trial over an eight-year-old grand theft when you know that – no matter what else happens – the defendant will be allowed to keep his ill-gotten gains.

That's one brooding reaction to the ongoing trial of former GOP congressional Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Travis County prosecutors are trying to hold DeLay accountable for the money-laundering swap of $190,000 in corporate ("soft") money to the Repub­lican National Committee in return for $190,000 from individual ("hard") contributions donated directly to Texas House candidates in the 2002 election, in the name of the DeLay-founded Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Com­mittee. In the simplest and long-statutory terms, Texas candidates cannot accept campaign funds from corporations (or unions); prosecutors are trying to prove that DeLay knowingly directed the swap because TRMPAC was having trouble raising sufficient individual donations, and therefore DeLay and his aides conspired to circumvent the Texas law forbidding such corporate contributions.

The defense's response to these charges, in the arguments of DeLay's attorney Dick DeGuerin, has basically been threefold: 1) that the case is just "about politics"; 2) that political money swaps go on all the time, and there's nothing criminal about them; 3) that even if the factual allegations about TRMPAC are true, DeLay had nothing to do with them (although he couldn't stop bragging about it at the time). "He was just a figurehead, and a good one," said DeGuerin. That's a job I'd definitely like to have – none of the work and all of the credit.

It's impossible to tell whether the jury is buying DeGuerin's arguments, but Judge Pat Priest has explicitly rejected at least one – that the money going into the RNC from TRMPAC was "different money" from that going out from the RNC to the Texas House candidates, because the outgoing checks were written from a hard money account. "I don't care if you put it in one pocket and took money out of the other pocket," Priest said, because – in the central question under trial – there might still be criminal intent to launder the money. "Money is absolutely fungible. It's like beans." The jury was not in the courtroom at the time, so the judge's Bean Theory may never get a fair hearing.

The Brand Name

I asked campaign finance law expert Fred Lewis what he thought of DeGuerin's arguments, and he was more than a trifle skeptical. "The argument is fundamentally untrue and mistaken," he said. "In the first place, it is no defense to say that 'everybody else steals or commits a crime, so I can too.' There may be other swaps in other states with other laws, but the law in Texas against this kind of thing has been in force for 100 years." Lewis said the defense is also confusing common internal party swaps with the TRMPAC case, in which the RNC was exchanging funds with a PAC to directly fund candidates. "Parties in certain circumstances can get corporate money for administrative expenses," he continued, "but candidates in Texas can never get corporate money." That explains last week's evidentiary procession of former GOP candidates who testified that they had indeed been happy to receive the TRMPAC checks and simply presumed they were legally obtained.

Lewis had identified the IRS records reflecting the TRMPAC money transfer and was one of two people who filed the original criminal complaints against DeLay. The other was Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. (Both men testified early in the trial.) McDonald also doesn't think the "everybody does it" argument will work in this case, and noted that last week the jury had heard DeLay's own recorded acknowledgment to prosecutors that he had known about the money transfer before it happened. "They may not have a smoking gun," McDonald said, "but they certainly have a noisy gun."

McDonald finds particularly absurd DeLay's claim that he had little to do with TRMPAC. "DeLay was their brand," McDon­ald said. "They wouldn't have raised all this money without DeLay."

The DeLay Legacy

Thus far in the courtroom, it's been the meticulous plodding of the prosecutors through the evidence vs. DeGuerin's folksy repetition that his client is guilty only of "successful politics." Perhaps the jury will buy that, if they happen to share the popular cynicism about all politicians, and also fail to recognize the peculiar specimen on trial before them. During breaks in the courtroom, DeLay puts on his smiley face, takes random shots at Ronnie Earle (the "rogue prosecutor," now retired, who decided to enforce state law), and, in his best "Little Caesar" impersonation, declares to reporters, "The prosecution doesn't have a case!"

Last week he was crowing about the GOP midterm victories and complaining that he wasn't at the center of them. Yet looking back over his handiwork, why should he lament? As McDonald acknowledged: "TRMPAC's goal was accomplished – they got exactly what Tom DeLay wanted the [corporate] money for. He got a majority of Republican seats in the Texas House; he got the realignment of the Texas congressional delegation for a Republican majority; he got everything he wanted with that money.

"That won't change – unless he gets convicted."

Lou Dubose is often among the reporters in the courtroom, although he said with a smile that DeLay won't talk to him since he wrote (with Jan Reid) The Hammer, a thorough examination of DeLay's sorry career as a lifelong political hustler and petty tyrant, from Sugar Land to Congress to Saipan. "I tried to ask him a question at a convention," recalled Dubose, "and he said: 'I'm never talking to you. You write shit. You write excrement.' Then he called over an aide so he could point me out to him and repeat it: 'You see this man? He writes shit.'"

It's quite an honor, of course, to be scorned and insulted by the likes of Tom DeLay. In the future, when Dubose recalls that episode over a drink or two, he can add that he and Reid simply reported DeLay's story as they had found it – still steaming and resplendent with the excremental stench of corruption.

For more on the life and times of Tom DeLay, see the Chronicle interview with Lou Dubose at austinchronicle.com/s/?e=1115126.

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Tom DeLaycriminal justicenational politics, Tom DeLay, TRMPAC, Ronnie Earle, Fred Lewis, Craig McDonald, Texans for Public Justice, Lou Dubose

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