For the second time in the last few years, a high-profile corruption prosecution against a Republican member of Congress has collapsed. This time, it’s Tom DeLay that gets to celebrate, as an appeals court not only overturned his conviction but ordered an acquittal:
A Texas appeals court has overturned the money laundering conviction of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 ruling on Thursday that DeLay had been acquitted. DeLay was sentenced to three years in prison, but his sentence was on hold while his case made its way through the appellate process. …
In Thursday’s ruling, the judges wrote “we reverse the judgments of the trial court and render judgments of acquittal.”
Unless the state appeals the ruling, this means that DeLay cannot be retried on the charges. The court could have ordered a new trial if it restrained its scope to just procedural issues. However, the court apparently believed that the prosecution simply couldn’t make a case for wrongdoing, and as a result took the relatively rare step of overturning a jury’s findings on guilt.
Their opinion makes it clear that the court had little regard for the state’s case:
Given the testimony of the corporate representatives and the undisputed facts that the corporations could lawfully make donations to TRMPAC and TRMPAC could lawfully transfer the corporate funds out of state, the State failed to prove the “applicable culpable mental states” for the donating corporations to support a finding of criminal intent by the corporations. See Ex parte Ellis, 309 S.W.3d at 90. 1
To support its position that the majority of corporate contributions violated the Election Code by not expressly designating a lawful use of their donations to TRMPAC, the State focuses on the following clause from the opinion in Ex parte Ellis: “there is no such thing as a legal undesignated corporate political contribution.” Id. at 88. We believe that the State takes this clause out of context. In that case, the court was addressing constitutional challenges to the Election Code. The clause cited by the State was made during the court’s examination of section 253.100, the section of the Election Code addressing the establishment of a general-purpose committee by a corporation and in response to a possible suggestion made by this Court. …
The State’s primary argument at trial was that the Election Code violation that generated criminal proceeds was the “agreement” between DeLay and others to the combined transfers of funds, i.e., the money swap of soft money for hard money. The State argued in its final argument: “[T]he moment that the decision was made to send the soft dollar check up to Washington D.C. with the intent that it ultimately go to candidates for elective office is the moment that this money became proceeds of criminal activity.” Relying on the use of the word “indirect” 13 in the Election and Penal Code statutes at issue, the State argues that the “agreement” to the combined transactions itself was an illegal contribution and thus the corporate funds sitting in TRMPAC’s bank account at the moment of the agreement became the proceeds of criminal activity. See Tex. Elec. Code § 251.001(2) (defining “contribution” to include “indirect transfer of money” and “agreement . . . to make a transfer”). However, the State fails to explain how the funds already in the bank account resulted from the subsequent money-swap agreement. See Tex. Penal Code § 34.01(4) (defining “proceeds” to include “funds acquired or derived directly or indirectly from, produced through, or realized through . . . an act”). Further, to support this argument, the State disregards the distinction between soft and hard money accounts as irrelevant, arguing: “The fact that the funds were not commingled is simply irrelevant in light of the explicit one-for-one exchange which was negotiated in this case.” But in the context of the campaign finance regulations, maintaining separate, segregated bank accounts for soft and hard money is recognized and accepted as legitimate.
The court also attacked the core of the case, the alleged conspiracy to violate election law, emphasis mine:
We also question the validity of the State’s “agreement” theory. It was not a crime to conspire to violate the Election Code in 2002. See Colyandro, 233 S.W.3d at 870–71, 885. And, even if it was, the evidence does not support a finding that there was an “agreement” to illegally transfer corporate money to Texas candidates. There was no evidence that TRMPAC or RNSEC treated the corporate funds as anything but what they were, corporate funds with limited uses under campaign finance law. Rather, when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence showed an agreement to two legal monetary transfers: that TRMPAC transfer corporate money to RNSEC for use in other states and not in Texas in exchange for RNSEC transferring funds to Texas candidates out of a hard money account. 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.
But even if that were true, the court ruled, there was no core crime to begin with:
Finally, even if we were to conclude that the corporate donations to TRMPAC or the agreement itself to the series of money transfers violated the Election Code, the State’s charges as stated in the indictment were tied to the transfer from RNSEC to the seven Texas candidates. As stated above, the RNSEC issued the checks to the candidates from a separate, segregated account—a hard money account—which did not include corporate money.
The conclusion? DeLay didn’t commit a crime at all, and the conviction resulted from poor jury instructions:
Based on the totality of the evidence, we conclude that the evidence presented does not support a conclusion that DeLay committed the crimes that were charged. See Williams,235 S.W.3d at 750; see also United States v. Grossman, 117 F.3d 255, 261 (5th Cir. 1997) (concluding that evidence legallyinsufficient to sustain conspiracycount where evidence was legally insufficient to sustain substantive counts forming basis for object of conspiracy); United States 21v. Mackay, 33 F.3d 489, 494 (5th Cir. 1994) (“A conspiracy conviction requires proof of an agreement to commit a crime.”). The fundamental problem with the State’s case was its failure to prove proceeds of criminal activity. We sustain DeLay’s first and second points of error.
Due to our resolution of these two grounds, we do not reach DeLay’s remaining points of error. Because we conclude that the evidence was legally insufficient to support DeLay’s convictions, we reverse the judgments of the trial court and render judgments of acquittal.
Quite frankly, that deconstruction is so complete that it would be difficult to imagine the Texas Supreme Court overturning any of it — and a successful appeal would have to hope that the court overturns all of it, or at least enough to get a new trial. I’d predict that the directed verdict of acquittal will send a strong enough message to dissuade prosecutors from trying it again.
DeLay joins the late Ted Stevens as two members of Congress recently prosecuted for corruption to be later vindicated in appeals to original convictions. William Jefferson, who was prosecuted in the same time frame, lost all of his appeals and will be in prison for at least the next ten years. The man who should be under scrutiny now is Ronnie Earle, whose years-long legal grudge match against DeLay and other Texas Republicans has been thoroughly discredited by the appellate court.
Update: Our friend Bryan Preston at PJM takes us on a trip down Memory Lane regarding this prosecution. I had totally forgotten about Jim Schermbeck, for instance.