Appeals court sees no dirt on DeLay money

Posted Saturday, Sep. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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For two out of three judges on an appeals court panel in Austin, the long-running criminal case against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican powerhouse from Sugar Land, boils down to this: There was never any dirty money, therefore no money laundering occurred.

For the third judge, that’s not necessarily so. He wrote a dissenting opinion saying it would be reasonable for jurors to decide that corporate contributions to DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee in 2002 were given with criminal intent and DeLay’s action to swap it for other money was illegal.

The 2-1 decision from the 3rd District Court of Appeals on Thursday tossed out Delay’s 2010 conviction and three-year prison sentence on a charge that he and others improperly channeled $190,000 to seven Republican candidates in 2002 state elections.

Results of those elections helped DeLay push a congressional redistricting plan favoring Republicans through the Legislature in 2003.

Prosecutors say they’ll appeal the case to the Court of Criminal Appeals. They should, because the issues involved should have a review by the state’s highest criminal court.

Plenty of people see the case as a political vendetta carried out by Democrats. It’s true that the case effectively removed DeLay as a force in national politics, but its important that the facts be determined and the points of law be resolved.

The Austin appeals court’s majority opinion noted properly that corporations cannot legally donate money to candidates’ political campaigns in Texas, but they can give money to political action committees like DeLay’s TRMPAC to finance committee operations.

There’s no dispute that TRMPAC sent $190,000 from corporate donations to the Republican National State Elections Committee, which then drew the same amount from its non-corporate contributions account and sent it to the seven candidates specified by TRMPAC.

The key distinction drawn by the two appeals court judges who overruled DeLay’s conviction is that the money laundering charge against him requires that the money involved first be shown to have been the proceeds of criminal activity.

That means, Justices Melissa Goodwin and David Gaultney said, the corporations that donated it must be shown to have meant it to go to candidates. Representatives of several of the donor corporations testified that they meant the money to be used only for legal purposes.

It’s legal for a committee like TRMPAC to send corporate contributions out of the state to be used by candidates in campaigns where that is allowed.

And there’s no argument about the legality of the Republican National State Elections Committee sending non-corporate money to candidates in Texas.

So the appeals court majority sees no harm and no foul. Their Thursday ruling said there was insufficient evidence for the jury to have found DeLay guilty.

“Rather than supporting an agreement to violate the Election Code, the evidence shows that the defendants were attempting to comply with the Election Code limitations on corporate contributions,” the majority opinion says.

But the members of the jury considered the law as it was explained to them, looked at the evidence and convicted DeLay beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s important.

Appeals court judges are supposed to focus on questions of how the law was applied in a lower court case, not the facts as the jury saw them.

That’s where the dissenting judge, Chief Justice J. Woodfin Jones, disagreed with the majority.

Citing literature distributed by TRMPAC, Jones wrote, “A rational juror could find that a corporation that makes a contribution to a political action committee whose stated primary purpose is to raise and give funds directly to candidates, in response to a solicitation that essentially promises that the funds will be used for ‘direct campaign expenses’‘rather than just paying for overhead’ is doing so with the intent that its contribution go to an individual candidate or campaign.”

That would be illegal, the money would be dirty and any coordinated swap for money that wasn’t could constitute money laundering.

Let’s see what the Court of Criminal Appeals has to say.

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