Iowa State Senator Kent Sorenson pled guilty this week to Federal charges that are likely to send him to prison. The influential Tea Party Senator accepted $73,000 from the Ron Paul campaign in 2012 to shift his endorsement from Michele Bachmann to Paul in the Iowa Caucus.
Meanwhile, Rick Perry has been indicted on flimsy charges of “abuse of office” for scheming to cut off an investigation into one of his numerous shady political deals. It is unlikely that Perry will ever even see the inside of a courtroom, much less a jail cell.
There is one very important reason why Iowa Sen. Sorenson is looking at a prison stint and Texas Gov. Rick Perry is still planning to run for President. Bribery is legal in Texas.
Both cases are complex, but each of them turns on details of their respective state laws. Iowa’s laws on public corruption provide an effective means of prosecuting those who try to buy official favors. Texas’ law does not. Though Sorenson was charged and pled under Federal indictments, those indictments related to Sorenson’s illegal efforts to protect himself from a state-level prosecution in Iowa.
Perry is operating in a state with almost non-existent laws on official corruption. With no need to conceal his actions, he doesn’t risk tripping over Federal fraud and campaign reporting requirements like Sorenson did. Rick Perry can accept millions of dollars from contributors like the late Bob Perry in return for setting up entire regulatory schemes in their favor. He can dole out millions of dollars in state “venture capital” funds to friends and donors without hiding. It’s all legal.
Bribery is effectively legal in Texas because of the carefully worded provisions of the state’s laws. First, for comparison, let’s look at how Iowa defines the offense of bribery:
[Bribery is a] benefit to a person who is serving or has been elected, selected, appointed, employed, or otherwise engaged to serve in a public
capacity, including a public officer or employee, a referee, juror, or jury panel member, or a witness in a judicial or arbitration
hearing or any official inquiry, or a member of a board of arbitration, pursuant to an agreement or arrangement or with the
understanding that the promise or thing of value or benefit will influence the act, vote, opinion, judgment, decision, or exercise of
discretion of the person with respect to the person’s services in that capacity commits a class “D” felony. In addition, a person
convicted under this section is disqualified from holding public office under the laws of this state.
Iowa retains a fairly standard definition of bribery. Here’s how Texas defines bribery:
BRIBERY. (a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly offers, confers, or agrees to confer on another, or solicits, accepts, or agrees to accept from another:
(1) any benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision, opinion, recommendation, vote, or other exercise of discretion as a public servant, party official, or voter;
(2) any benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision, vote, recommendation, or other exercise of official discretion in a judicial or administrative proceeding;
(3) any benefit as consideration for a violation of a duty imposed by law on a public servant or party official; or
(4) any benefit that is a political contribution as defined by Title 15, Election Code, or that is an expenditure made and reported in accordance with Chapter 305, Government Code, if the benefit was offered, conferred, solicited, accepted, or agreed to pursuant to an express agreement (emphasis added) to take or withhold a specific exercise of official discretion if such exercise of official discretion would not have been taken or withheld but for the benefit; notwithstanding any rule of evidence or jury instruction allowing factual inferences in the absence of certain evidence, direct evidence of the express agreement shall be required in any prosecution under this subdivision.(emphasis added)
(d) It is an exception to the application of Subdivisions (1), (2), and (3) of Subsection (a) that the benefit is a political contribution as defined by Title 15, Election Code, or an expenditure made and reported in accordance with Chapter 305, Government Code.
In Texas, as long as your bribe is reported as an official campaign contribution and you do not record the terms of the bribe in some “express agreement” anything goes. Bribery is legal in the absence of a contract.
Let’s be clear about what this means. Unlike in Iowa and other states, in Texas your campaign contributions can buy a politician’s vote so long as you do not reduce the agreement to a contract. Bribery via campaign contribution is solid, officially protected political speech in Texas.
Looking at the ethics rules for the Texas House and Senate presents an even uglier picture. Part of the trap Sorenson walked into was set by the strict ethics rules of the Iowa Senate. Texas legislators face no such obstacles.
In Texas, legislators are allowed to live off of their campaign contributions, vote on matters affecting businesses they own, and use money from donors to pay for vaguely defined “out of pocket expenses.” Texas State Senators are strictly prohibited from using campaign contributions to pay for laundry expenses. I’m not making this up. Apart from the laundry taboo, the Legislature is pretty much open for business.
Gov. Perry likes to travel the country encouraging people to relocate to Texas, touting its enviable freedom from regulation. Sen. Sorenson should have heard Perry’s call. Sorenson could have accepted that bribe from the Ron Paul campaign in Texas without going to jail. He could have used the method perfected by former Rep. Tom DeLay.
In Texas Sorenson could have accepted the money in the form of campaign contributions, used the money to pay living expenses, vacations, and other important items, and never needed to hide his activities. This is the method DeLay was using to fund his campaign to get Texas legislators to write a redistricting plan for him.
DeLay was only indicted because he was laundering corporate contributions, and doing it in a laughably sloppy manner. Bribery was never at issue because, as explained above, it isn’t illegal in Texas. DeLay ultimately walked free because a Texas Appellate Court ruled that his money laundering operation wasn’t illegal either. God bless Texas.
The lesson for Iowa Sen. Kent Sorenson is that Rick Perry is right. Life is better, at least for the well-connected and the wealthy, in Texas. Sure, you can’t use campaign contributions to pay your laundry bill, but who needs that when you can launder money instead? Paying for your own dry cleaning is a small price to pay to avoid getting a taxpayer-funded orange jumpsuit.