The Problem Is What’s Legal

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is at least temporarily off the legal hook after a Texas court on Thursday overturned his conviction on money laundering charges.

Prosecutors already are promising a new appeal – good for them – but the story of what DeLay’s friends are hailing as his vindication is really a tale of how thoroughly screwed up our campaign finance system has become.

As University of California – Irvine law professor and political scientist Rick Hasen explains in this piece, “the big problem is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal.”

DeLay helped arrange for a Texas political committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, to transfer $190,000 raised from corporate donors to an account managed by the Republican National Committee in Washington. The RNC, in turn, shipped the same amount back to the Texas group, drawing from an account composed of donations from individuals. The transfers allowed the Texans to spend the money supporting candidates for the state legislature and other state offices, who under Texas law cannot accept money from corporations.

A jury concluded that was money laundering. But as Hasen explains, the appeals court overturned the verdict – by a 2-1 vote – based on testimony from corporate leaders who said they made the donations to court favor with and gain access to DeLay, not to influence elections in Texas.

Isn’t that something? The court is saying it’s perfectly OK to buy access to politicians like you buy access to other services.

Need some time with a lawyer to talk about your will or an accountant about your taxes? Write a check. They may not be able to help you, but you still have to pay for their time. Need to talk to an elected official about a tax break or help securing a government contract? Write a check.

Mark Twain was right. We have the best government money can buy.

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