Wednesday, January 12, 2011
The Washington Post reports here on the three year prison sentence handed down Monday to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay by Texas state judge Pat Priest. DeLay was found guilty last November by an Austin jury of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering under Texas criminal statutes.
The prosecution of DeLay by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and his successor has been nothing less than a travesty of justice. This is really not about Tom Delay. You can love him or you can hate him. It is instead about our collective glee whenever a person of an opposing ideology gets indicted.
Earle originally indicted DeLay for conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to violate the state election code. The election code conspiracy charge was almost immediately thrown out because there was no such crime in existence in Texas, as Earle should have known, and as the state’s highest criminal court later confirmed. The money laundering charge, and the conspiracy charge on which it is bottomed, should have never been brought either. Here’s why.
Delay's alleged laundering activity was accomplished through the writing of checks. DeLay was accused and convicted of knowingly conducting, supervising, and facilitating a transaction involving the "proceeds" of criminal activity in violation of the state money laundering statute, Texas Penal Code Section 34.02. In 2002, the year of the alleged offense, Section 34.01 of the Penal Code provided that "‘Proceeds’ meant "funds acquired or derived directly or indirectly from, produced through, or realized through an act." Section 34.01 defined "funds" as follows.
(A) coin or paper money of the United States or any other country that is designated as legal tender and that circulates and is customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in the country of issue;
(B) United States silver certificates, United States Treasury notes, and Federal Reserve System notes; and
(C) official foreign bank notes that are customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in a foreign country and foreign bank drafts."
So, in 2002 the "proceeds" of criminal activity meant "funds" acquired, derived, produced or realized through an act. "Funds" in turn included: coin or paper money designated as legal tender, circulating, and used as a medium of exchange; United States silver certificates, United States Treasury notes, and Federal Reserve System notes; and, official foreign bank notes used and accepted as a medium of exchange in a foreign country, and foreign bank drafts. Most conspicuously, "funds" did not include checks. This was no accident. The final version of the 1993 money laundering statute was far narrower than the draft first introduced in the Texas House of Representatives. The initial draft prohibited the knowing facilitation of a transaction involving "property" that was the "proceeds" of criminal activity. Property was defined broadly to cover tangible or intangible personal property as well as "a document, including money, that represents or embodies anything of value."
I am aware of no reported cases under the original Texas money laundering statute, prior to DeLay’s indictment, in which the proceeds of criminal activity were identified as checks. In the vast majority of the cases, the laundered proceeds consisted of currency. There were no reported cases even discussing whether a check could constitute laundered funds. The reason for this is obvious. Virtually no prosecutor in Texas thought that checks were "funds" under the old money laundering statute.
In 2005, the Texas Legislature amended the money laundering statute and broadened the definition of "funds" to include "currency or its equivalent including an electronic fund, personal check, bank check, traveler’s check, money order, bearer negotiable instrument, bearer investment security, bearer security, or certificate of stock in a form that allows title to pass on delivery." The House Research Organization’s analysis of the amendment stated that it would "broaden the definition of ‘funds’ to include money other than cash." The analysis also notes, in the "Supporters Say" section, that "[u]nder current law, prosecutors may not prosecute offenders for money-laundering if the offender received a form of money other than cash, such as checks or money orders. This is inadequate as it prevents prosecution under this statute in an array of cases." The new bill "would fix this problem by covering money received in a variety of forms other than cash." It gets even worse. Members of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s own staff helped in the drafting of the 2005 amendment!
Of course DeLay could not be prosecuted under the 2005 version of the statute, for conduct that allegedly occurred in 2002, without violating the Constitution’s ex post facto clause. But that sort of problem did not bother Earle. He simply used the 2002 version, even though nobody thought back then that "laundering" via checks constituted laundering under Section 34.02.
The case is now headed for the higher courts. Here’s hoping that one of them does the right thing.