Monday, November 29, 2010

DeLay Conviction Provides Little Deterrent

Tom DeLay is guilty in his political money-laundering scheme. This story came out late Wednesday while much of the country was traveling or getting ready for Thanskgiving. The conviction is significant because it shows that people who ignore their legal responsibilities when handling other people’s money can go to jail, even if the money in question is political money. In other words, politics does not serve as a blanket license to lie, cheat, and steal.

Most political corruption cases involve bad decisions at the periphery of an officeholder’s work. You look at them and say, “What were they thinking?” Not so with DeLay. The actions he was convicted of go right to the heart of his political career. When DeLay set up a shell organization to transfer corporate money to political candidates in 2002, it was a necessary step toward his becoming the House majority leader one year later, in 2003. It was then that the K Street Project, which DeLay also was involved in creating, became a multi-billion-dollar political corruption machine for the Republican Party, turning uncounted Republican officeholders into multi-millionaires. Looking at it through this lens, it is fair to say that moving vast sums of money around in order to corrupt the political process was the whole purpose of DeLay’s political career.

The long delay in reaching the conviction — this is a 2010 conviction for actions taken in 2002, in a criminal pattern that started who knows how many years earlier — means that it won’t serve as much of a deterrent for today’s political criminals. With the White House taking a look-the-other-way approach to crime in Washington, and Congress, the political parties, and the news media treating political crime as a sort of game, it’s hard for politicos to understand that there are specific rules that have to be followed when other people’s money is involved. When you can get away with something year after year, you tend to start to think of it as legitimate. DeLay himself does not yet understand that he did something wrong, and his lawyers hint that they may be able to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the political money laundering laws. With the Supreme Court itself involved in the political money laundering game, in a fishy decision earlier this year, that is not a preposterous thought. Put it all together, and it is not nearly enough to persuade people in Washington that the corrupt money games have to stop.