With Texas judge Pat Priest imposing a sentence of three years in prison on former House majority leader Tom DeLay, it is not an exaggeration to say that this is the culmination of an undeserved, unjustified, and unconscionable act of political persecution. It is the result of an abusive prosecution that exemplifies the drive to criminalize politics and to make the ordinary processes of raising and spending funds for political campaigns a crime.
The man who should be on trial in Texas is Ronnie Earle, the unethical Travis County prosecutor who went after DeLay as part of a political vendetta fueled by his bizarre belief that business owners’ political activities are “every bit as insidious as terrorism.” (Tell that to the almost 3,000 Americans who were murdered on 9/11.) How do we know Earle believes that? Because he had a documentary film crew follow him around as he pursued the indictment of DeLay, producing a film called The Big Buy that Earle used to try to win higher office in Texas. He used the same unprofessional and unethical tactics to prosecute Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (her case was thrown out by a judge) and former Texas attorney general Jim Mattox, who was acquitted and won reelection.
This was a phony prosecution from the very beginning. It took Earle three separate attempts before he could get a case that a grand jury or a judge would not throw out. Then he got DeLay indicted for behavior that was perfectly legitimate under campaign-finance laws, identical to the kind of fundraising done by practically every campaign committee and candidate in the country.
DeLay solicited $155,000 in contributions for a political-action committee he headed and contributed $190,000 to the Republican National State Election Committee (RNSEC); the RNSEC then contributed $877,000 to 42 state and local candidates in Texas in the final two months of the 2002 campaign, including seven recommended by DeLay. For this routine act of campaign financing, DeLay was charged with and convicted of criminal money laundering, a crime defined by knowingly using the proceeds of criminal activity. Since these contributions were all legal, the most basic element of this supposed crime could not be met; nonetheless, Earle drove the case forward in one of the most outrageous prosecutorial abuses of criminal law that we have seen in decades. Meanwhile Earle indicted a number of companies, including Sears, that had made perfectly legal contributions to DeLay’s PAC, and then sold those companies dismissals in exchange for donations to one of his favorite charities.
Government prosecutors have a duty and an obligation to enforce the law judiciously and fairly. The power they are given by society is immense, and so is the damage they can do when they abuse that power. Ronnie Earle has showed in case after case that he is a self-serving ideologue, a crass opportunist who uses his power as a prosecutor to pursue his own political and ideological agenda.
Earle’s miscarriage of justice may be even worse than the infamous Mike Nifong’s attempt to railroad innocent Duke University lacrosse players into prison in 2006 to solidify his reelection. At least Nifong was unsuccessful and paid the price for his misconduct. But unless a Texas appeals court throws out this outrageous prosecution, and the unjustified conviction and sentence, Earle will get away with his appalling abuse of power. And Tom DeLay will end up in prison not because he broke the law, but because he was so effective a politician that his opponents were willing to do anything to bring him down.