The growing criminalization of American politics

In the past month, I have watched two close friends fall victim to the growing criminalization of American politics. On November 15th, my former legislative director, Kevin Ring, was found guilty by a Washington, DC jury of five counts of public corruption, four of which involved the “honest services” fraud statute. Then, just last week, my former colleague in the House, Tom DeLay, was found guilty in Texas of money laundering. In both cases, prosecutors stretched criminal laws to cover activities that they clearly were not intended to cover. The results reflect a movement by headline-seeking prosecutors to change the law without action by the legislative branch. These prosecutions have shaken my confidence in our nation’s criminal justice system and convince me that the incoming Congress should conduct careful oversight over the abuse of prosecutorial discretion.

Like many observers, I believe Tom DeLay will prevail on appeal. But in many ways, the damage has already been done. Democrats in Washington hounded him with frivolous lawsuits, including a ridiculous racketeering charge, even before a partisan local prosecutor initiated the action decided last week. DeLay was forced to give up his seat in Congress and has reportedly spent $8 million to defend his freedom. Fortunately for DeLay, he had an existing network of political supporters from around the country that was able to help him to raise the money necessary to defend himself.

Kevin Ring is not so fortunate. When federal prosecutors investigating the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal turned their attention on Kevin, they told him that the only way to guarantee his personal liberty and avoid the astronomical financial and emotional cost of a trial was to implicate his former boss — me. During the same period, these prosecutors threatened to charge my wife, Julie, with crimes if I did not plead guilty. Since neither she nor I had committed a crime, we would have had to lie in order to give them what they wanted. They searched our home in Virginia and interviewed dozens of individuals who worked in my congressional office over the years, as well as my wife’s business clients, our neighbors, and acquaintances.  As with Tom DeLay, the scrutiny contributed mightily to my decision to not seek re-election to the House of Representatives.

This past June, the Justice Department finally notified my attorney that the investigation had been closed. Since that time, I have finally been free to talk to my former staff members and colleagues and learn of the pressure they felt to admit to corrupt behavior or to accuse me of crimes. These individuals are not well known like Tom Delay, and yet were saddled with overwhelming legal bills. In the end, I was pleased but not at all surprised that none of my former staffers were charged or prosecuted for the activities they undertook while working for me.

All of us, though, have been horrified at what has happened to our friend and former colleague, Kevin Ring. I first met Kevin 17 years ago when he began working as an intern in my office. We became close at first because he worked so hard for me and because our political outlooks were so similar. Over time, however, this work relationship became a warm personal relationship. When votes in the House would run late, Kevin and I would spend hours talking and laughing about anything and everything, from politics and relationships to more serious topics, such as who made the best doughnuts in Washington.