We were out at dinner with some out-of-town friends last night, so the “60 Minutes” piece on Tom DeLay is still sitting on my TiVo waiting for me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t check out the transcript (via The Stakeholder). There are two things that I want to comment on. First is the “nobody really knows what the law means” defense, as articulated by DeLay apologist Rep. John Carter (R, Round Rock).
DeLay’s fellow Texan, Republican Rep. John Carter, says whether the law was broken depends on what your definition of “administrative” is.
“No court has actually defined clearly what administrative purposes is,” says Carter.
60 Minutes showed him TRMPAC’s brochure with the statement of how the corporate funds would be spent.
“Active candidate evaluation and recruitment. Message development. Market research and issue development,” says Stahl. “I mean, how is that administrative?”
“Active candidate evaluation and recruitment, that’s a party of administrative procedure,” says Carter. “That’s a party function.”
“I thought administration was the running of the office. The Xerox machine. Paying bills,” says Stahl.
“This is what the court has to rule on,” says Carter. “If they find all these things are administrative, there’ll be no convictions in this case.”
I’d like to propose an alternate explanation to the question of why no court has ever ruled on what constitutes an “administrative purpose”. There’s no case law because no one has ever come anywhere close to violating this century-old law before, and the reason for that is because anyone with two brain cells to rub together can plainly see that “administrative” means “non-political”. When you have a law that is crystal clear, and that draws a very bright line, as this one does, it seems to me that you should expect there to be very little case law because there should be no confusion about what the law says. Nobody’s been brazen enough before to claim that confusion was even a plausible explanation. If they get away with it now, then this law never actually meant anything.
Norm Ornstein’s clever quip about Mother Teresa getting caught turning right on red in a state that doesn’t allow it is spot on. This isn’t an honest mistake, it isn’t a testing of boundaries, and it isn’t a case of the law not keeping up with new technologies. It’s shameless pettifoggery, and it deserves to be slapped down.
Item Two has to do with Ronnie Earle’s caginess about whether or not Tom DeLay is in actual danger of eventually being indicted.
What about DeLay? Is Earle looking at him?
“We’re following the truth. And wherever that leads, that’s where we’ll go,” says Earle.
The WaPo preview of this piece says that Earle “repeatedly skirted questions about whether DeLay might face prosecution”. DeLay and his defenders, of course, use this to their advantage. But I don’t think you can draw any conclusions from this.
It is, of course, possible that Tom DeLay himself broke no laws, or that if he did he did so in a way that didn’t leave enough tracks to hold him accountable. We won’t know what the grand jury is up to until they either hand down more indictments or disband without taking further action. I think it’s naive in the extreme to think that DeLay didn’t know or didn’t approve of what was happening, but that in and of itself is not an indictable offense. Either he kept his hands clean or he didn’t. We’ll find out soon enough.
It’s also possible that Earle is building his case against DeLay, perhaps with the cooperation of the three corporations so far who have pledged their help. If so, I’d think his past experience with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison might be guiding him to keep his cards very close to his chest for as long as possible. The stakes here are extremely high. If Earle is going to make a move at DeLay, he can’t afford to start before all his ducks are lined up. We’ve already seen Rep. Mary Denny’s worst-bill-ever, which would effectively neuter his investigation, we’ve now got Andy Taylor and the Seven Solid Citizens attempting to lecture us all on what the law really is, and we’ve had rumblings from as far as two years ago about moving jurisdiction for election law infractions into the AG’s office. Anything that could tip public and editorial opinion away from “he’s just doing his job” towards “it’s all politically motivated” has to be avoided. Strike with full force or don’t strike at all.
One other scenario that comes to mind goes back to the question, raised once way back when and mostly avoided since, of whether or not jurisdiction over DeLay would rest in Earle’s office or in the Fort Bend DA’s office. Suppose Earle thinks he can build an airtight case against DeLay but can’t be sure he has the authority to indict him? I’d be pretty cryptic about what my intentions were if I were Earle in that instance. If Earle decides that he himself can’t take action, what’s his next step? Would the Fort Bend DA’s office take the handoff? Would simply releasing it all into the wild and letting the chips fall where they may be the right thing to do? Like I said, I’d want to keep some wiggle room if I were in Earle’s shoes.
Greg has his reaction to the piece, and I’m sure there will be more elsewhere. Ultimately, the ruling in the TRMPAC civil trial will go a long way towards pointing the path to a resolution in the criminal cases that we already know of, and those that may be yet to come.
UPDATE: Public Citizen has some resources for your perusal.