The growing criminalization of American politics

John Doolittle Contributor
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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.

I was thrilled to watch Kevin start a family of his own and embark on a new career as a lobbyist. Where consistent with my duties and principles, I sought to help Kevin as much as I could. I was grateful that Kevin remained committed to helping me, whether it was by providing political advice, raising campaign funds, or lobbying other offices on my behalf when I ran for a leadership position.

Little did we know that, years later, our relationship would be deemed corrupt by prosecutors at the U.S. Justice Department. After years of threats and intimidation tactics, Kevin was formally accused of trying to bribe the members of my staff by occasionally taking them to lunch or providing tickets to local events. Even more outrageous, prosecutors accused him of arranging a sham job for my wife, Julie, despite the fact that she worked for her pay and that Kevin had almost no knowledge of Julie even having the job.

In a 2009 trial, the government threw everything they had at Kevin and could not get a conviction on any of the eight counts with which he was charged. That trial should have been the end of the matter. Yet the government proceeded to try Kevin again, and on November 15, 2010, he was found guilty of five felony counts, including depriving my constituents of my honest services through bribery.

The government’s tactics in the second trial were shameful. The prosecutors were intent on exploiting the jury’s ignorance of how Congress operates in order to win a conviction. At one point, a prosecutor skeptically asked a government witness why I would have supported building a desperately needed water project in rural Montana since I, after all, represented a district in California. The cynical answer given was that the Montana community had Kevin Ring as its lobbyist, and the jury was left to infer that I must have been corruptly influenced by Kevin. The truth, which the prosecutors knew but did not share with the jurors, was that I was then chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for authorizing water projects throughout the country. Not only would I have been denied the chairmanship if I only funded entities in my own congressional district, such a practice would have been completely inappropriate. That a prosecutor from the U.S. Department of Justice would invite jury members to infer corruption from such uncontroversial legislative decision-making is disturbing on many levels — narrowly, it is a sleazy tactic to use simply to win a conviction, and more generally, it is an encroachment on the separation of powers the Founders wisely wrote into the United States Constitution.

For having the courage to resist the prosecutors’ efforts to get him to lie about his interactions with me and my office, Kevin Ring is now over $2 million in debt and facing prison time. During his struggle against the government, both of his parents passed away, and he and his wife of ten years separated. If sent to prison, he will be separated from his two young daughters who live primarily with him.

When I served in Congress, I vigorously opposed any expansion of federal agency authority. All too often, however, I exempted the Justice Department from my efforts because I wanted to give law enforcement the power it needed to keep our country safe from dangerous individuals. After enduring a years-long investigation into crimes my wife and I did not commit, and after watching the outrageous prosecution of Kevin Ring, I have serious doubts about whether I was wise to faithfully support the Justice Department. I strongly encourage the new Congress to examine the guidance and leeway the Department gives to federal prosecutors, and to refrain from passing any new vague criminal laws which seem to invite the worst prosecutorial abuse.

John T. Doolittle represented California’s 14th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 1993 and California’s 4th Congressional  District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2009. He is a member of the State Bar of California.