What Could Sink DeLay?

| Fri Oct. 7, 2005 12:43 PM PDT

What's going to become of Tom DeLay? Down in Texas, Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle has indicted the House Majority Leader on charges of conspiracy to violate campaign-finance laws, money laundering, and conspiracy to launder money. Yesterday, DeLay hit back, accusing Earle of accepting union and law firm donations, but as Josh Marshall reports, those charges are mostly bogus—Earle's contributions were not at all illegal. Regardless, DeLay could very well squirm his way out of the Texas charges, which ultimately amount to violating a campaign-finance technicality (that doesn't make it right, of course). It's not impossible, although this bit of news doesn't look good for him.

But even if he was acquitted in Texas, would DeLay be in the clear? Hardly. In the New Republic this week, Michael Crowley discusses what DeLay should really be worrying about, and it involves his little junkets to Scotland allegedly financed by Jack Abramoff:

Most devastating for DeLay would be if the government could prove bribery: a direct quid pro quo in which DeLay carried legislative water for Abramoff in return for a junket. Given that DeLay and Abramoff were longtime personal friends and political allies, however, isolating specific favor-trading beyond the two men's symbiotic relationship won't be easy. But, even without proof of such a clear transaction, DeLay could be vulnerable to prosecution under what is known as federal "gratuity law," which requires a lower standard of evidence for conviction but still brings a penalty of up to two years in prison. (Bribery can bring a 15-year sentence.) "Federal gratuity law is extraordinarily broad," says former federal prosecutor Seth Rodner of the Tampa-based firm Fowler White Boggs Banker.

A gratuity-law prosecution might only require the government to show that Abramoff had some business interest in which DeLay was in a position to help. The feds would not need smoking-gun proof like, say, an e-mail from DeLay promising a House vote in exchange for a golf trip. For instance, in a 2001 case involving corruption by a Florida housing official, the Justice Department argued that, if an official accepted a gift from someone with an identifiable business interest, "the jury is free to find that a criminal violation occurred, even with no evidence of wrongdoing, inflated contract prices or other suspect dealings." Two of the three defendants were convicted. At the time of DeLay's British junket, Abramoff had countless business interests before DeLay's House, from bills that might regulate his gambling clients to proposed labor laws threatening his sweatshop patrons in the Pacific Marianas Islands. In that context, the 2000 British golf trip alone could be grounds for gratuity charges against DeLay.

It looks like the House leadership is a little less sanguine about this particular business, given that Roy Blunt—who by all accounts is a mini-DeLay himself—has already started maneuvering for the House leadership position. DeLay behind bars for two years? It's a strong possibility.

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