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Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay leaves the Travis County Jail after being sentence to three years in prison on January 10, 2011 in Austin, Texas. DeLay was convicted of channeling corporate donations in 2002 through the Republican National Committee to Republican candidates for the Texas state legislature.
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John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation. He is also the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.
No one did more to corrupt the public life of the country during the Bush-Cheney era than the cruelest and most crooked of their henchmen, Thomas Dale "Tom" DeLay, the Republican Majority Leader turned the U.S. House of Representatives into a cesspool of pay-to-play politics and the elections of his home state of Texas into empty charades.
"DeLay's brand of politics was one of reckless disregard for the American people. By funneling illegal corporate money into Texas state elections, he helped elect Republican candidates to the Texas Legislature, which led to the tainted redistricting of his state," says Tom "Smitty" Smith, the director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, which with the group Texans for Public Justice waged the long campaign to hold the former Majority Leader to account.
The evidence of DeLay's wrongdoing was so clear, and the Republican fixer's defense was so lame, that there was never much doubt that he would be convicted.
The only real question went to the issue of whether DeLay would receive a sentence that matched his crimes.
He faced up to 99 years behind bars for money laundering, and another 20 years for engaging in a criminal conspiracy.
No one with a clear sense of DeLay's wrongdoing thought those numbers too extreme.
DeLay, who swore an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic," chose instead to make himself the most powerful legislative enemy of representative democracy, the system of checks and balances and the ideals outlined in the founding document.
DeLay's crimes merited hard time.
But he got off easy.
The former Texas congressman was sentenced Monday to three years in prison for conspiring to direct laundered corporate money to Texas Republican candidates when he was at the pinnacle of his power in 2002. That's on top of the ten years of probation that DeLay accepted last November in lieu of an additional five years of prison time for the money laundering conviction.
Bizarrely, while DeLay acceptance of probation effectively confirmed his guilt, his attorneys are appealing the conviction and sentence.
When so many politicians walk away unscathed from so many congressional crimes, it may seem harsh to suggest that three years in jail and ten years of probation is a light sentence. But the man who proudly referred to himself as "The Hammer" — a reference to his ability to force other Republicans to abandon their principles in order to deliver for corporate paymasters — did not merely take money in return for corrupting the governing process. He used that money to subvert democracy itself — a far greater crime.
The specific crime for which DeLay was convicted involved the use his political action committee to move $190,000 in corporate campaign contributions to the Republican National Committee. The RNC distributed the money to Republican legislative candidates in Texas whose election shifted control of the state House to the GOP. Then, at DeLay's behest, the legislators redrew Texas congressional district lines in a way that so favored Republican candidates that it resulted in the defeat of five Democratic incumbents in the 2004 election.
The Democrats who were defeated had survived the Republican sweep of 2002. Yet, in 2004, a far better year for Democrats nationally, they lost. The defeats did not come as a result of shifting voter sentiment but rather as a result of DeLay's subversion of the 2002 elections and then of the redistricting process.
The former Republican powerbroker likes to claim he was just playing politics. An unrepentant DeLay told a Texas court on Monday that: "I fought the fight. I ran the race. I kept the faith."
That is the sick-and-twisted excuse making of career criminal.
The criminal is going to jail.
It should be for a lot longer. Public Citizen's Smith is right when he suggests that "(DeLay's) sentence of three years in prison is a far cry from justice when compared to the damage he has done to Texas households, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come."
Yet, while the sentence is short, it is reasonable to recognize that the sound heard when Tom DeLay's jail door finally slams shut will be the faint echo of something all too rare in American politics: accountability.