DeLay's Justice Probe Ends With a Whimper

Tom DeLay arrives at his office on April 4, 2006, the day he announced his resignation Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty Images

The Justice Department’s decision to let former House majority leader Tom DeLay off the hook and end the six-year-long investigation that drove him out of Washington at the peak of his power should win the Obama administration some points with Republicans, if not Democrats. This is the second high-profile Republican that Attorney General Eric Holder has vindicated, the other being the late senator Ted Stevens, whose corruption case Holder declined last year to prosecute.

Chalk it up to prosecutorial discretion, which I think Ken Starr of Whitewater/Lewinsky fame should have showed more of in his overly zealous pursuit of President Clinton. In Washington, these big scandals almost always end anti-climactically. Clinton worked out a deal to avoid criminal prosecution for lying to a grand jury, but paid significantly in terms of time squandered in office and damage to his reputation. Members of Congress facing ethical conflicts often avoid criminal prosecution by leaving office, but not always. Ohio Congressman Bob Ney resigned after pleading guilty to accepting favors from super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and in 2007 was sentenced to jail for 30 months.

The charges against DeLay centered on his ties to Abramoff, and so it is curious that DeLay gets to walk, while Abramoff spent the last two-and-a-half years in jail. He was released in June, and will serve out the remaining months of his sentence in a halfway house. The official Justice Department position is that they don’t talk about cases they don’t prosecute, but reading between the lines, the decision to forego prosecution is likely both substantive and political. Substantively, corruption cases are hard to prove, as we’re witnessing with the Chicago jury’s inability to reach consensus on most of the charges against former governor Rod Blagojevich. In Blago’s case, the huge gap between his braggadocio and the deeds he actually committed may save him in the end.

In Washington, the worst deeds are often perfectly legal, and it can be hard to distinguish between influence-peddling and bribery unless a bag of cash actually changes hands and it’s captured on videotape. The case against DeLay probably wasn’t a slam dunk, and politically, the Obama administration, struggling to retain some of the bipartisan and post-partisan luster that carried Obama into office, probably doesn’t have the stomach to send a former House Republican leader to the hoosegow.

Young voters who Obama needs to turn out in November are probably more familiar with DeLay on “Dancing with the Stars,” and his valiant efforts to stay in the competition despite foot pain diagnosed as a pre-stress fracture. He’s no longer identified with the Republican bigwigs, so Obama’s Justice Department must have concluded it has better things to do than pursue old grudges. I only wish DeLay would refrain from doing a victory lap in the media. He did a lot in Washington that he shouldn’t be proud of, and he’s just another guy getting off from charges of white-collar crime.

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