WASHINGTON — It's not easy to like former Rep. Tom DeLay, given his Kung Fu approach to politics during the years in this town he served as the leader of House Republicans, years in which he made a major contribution to the atmosphere of incivility that exists in Congress today. He gave no quarter and asked for none, and he clearly skirted the edge of propriety if not legality in his dealings with lobbyists.
But the Justice Department, after a lengthy investigation, decided not to prosecute him for his relationship with the notorious K Street influence peddler Jack Abramoff. And, like it or not, there are no laws for viewer relief for the Texas "Hammer's" performance on television's "Dancing with the Stars."
DeLay's Democratic opponents in his home state took umbrage at his manipulative nature and the election of Republicans to the state's legislature and now the former king of the Hill faces a term in prison. A famously aggressive Democratic prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, and DeLay's other enemies seized on a Texas law obviously aimed at drug dealers and won a conviction on a charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
For those not following this bizarre case, the ex-congressman was nailed for channeling $190,000 worth of corporate contributions through the Republican National Committee to sanitize it, a practice that goes on daily in politics where money is shifted frequently. The same amount was then sent back to Texas to support candidates for the legislature there. Corporate contributions to those running for the legislature are illegal in Texas. The result of this alleged sleight of hand was a GOP legislature and passage of congressional redistricting that favored the Republicans. Earle's successor in the prosecutor's office continued the case and won the conviction that a judge recently translated into 10 years probation on one count and three years in prison on another.
The unrelenting prosecutors actually had wanted a 10-year sentence so that during the appeal process DeLay would not be eligible for parole. But that was a bit severe even for the judge, who may have rejected the notion that she was dealing with the crime of the century. DeLay after all had not been accused by anyone of personally profiting from his maneuvers. There was no charge of bribery or other corruption. DeLay's attorneys believe the conviction will be over turned. There certainly is substantial opinion that the money laundering law was stretched to the breaking point in this case, that its intent was not to criminalize politics.
The former congressman's contention that he is a victim of political retribution seems also to have some validity. The Democrats were infuriated by their loss of control of the redistricting process and there is little doubt they vowed to do something about it. On the other hand, DeLay left himself wide open by his own admitted arrogant behavior and shifty deals. But he said that he is being persecuted for his political prowess and not something he did wrong and about which he can't be remorseful. His family, his fortune and his career have been seriously damaged by all this.
It is difficult, however, to feel terribly sorry for DeLay or to applaud the brand of liver-incising politics that he practiced so well for so many years. It is also not easy to like the prosecutors in this matter, particularly those who initiated the action under highly suspicious motivation. Texas is a state with a history of wild and woolly politics. Remember Lyndon Johnson won a Senate seat on the strength of a missing ballot box.
One probably shouldn't expect a quick answer to this. The appeal will take some time and depending on the outcome possibly move through more than one court. His lawyers contend the conviction will not stand and DeLay is free on bond until the appeal process has taken its course.
Meanwhile, it seems, rightly or wrongly one should not ignore that famous old admonition not "to mess with Texas."
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at email@example.com.
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