Former Congressman Steve Stockman is due in a Houston federal court Wednesday afternoon for his arraignment. Stockman is facing 24 criminal counts, ranging from fraud to money laundering to tax evasion. He's expected to plead not guilty to all charges.
"He's accused of raising money on behalf of charities and then diverting the money to his own personal and his own campaign expenses," says Kenneth Williams, a professor of criminal law at South Texas College of Law Houston. "He's also been accused of covering up his misdeeds, what he had been doing. That's the essence of the charges."
According to the indictment, Stockman and two of his aides used the money to help fund Stockman's 2012 congressional campaign and his 2014 primary challenge to Senator John Cornyn. Stockman also allegedly diverted funds to support his brother's book business, to pay for alcohol rehab for a female associate, and to send a nephew and the daughter of a family friend to summer camp.
"It's sadly common," says Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, "You have several members of Congress who have been indicted — since the 1980s, there's been more than two dozen — and he certainly fits into that mold. He's out of office now, but a lot of these things happened while he was in office."
Rottinghaus says Stockman has been known for making strong statements, both in and out of office. In 1995, during his first term, he accused then-President Clinton of orchestrating murder, during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, in order to justify a ban on assault weapons. Stockman now blames his own arrest on a "deep state" conspiracy, borrowing language from President Trump to describe political enemies in the federal bureaucracy.
"It's not our job to prove or disprove conspiracy theories," says Dane Ball, Stockman's lead defense counsel.
Ball says it's important to remember that a criminal indictment is a one-sided story, presenting the government's side of the case and only the government's side. "You know, it's our job to help Steve bring out his side of the story, but bring it out in a court of law, before a fair judge and eventually twelve of his peers," he says. "We have these cases all the time where people want to convict someone based on the indictment alone, convict him in the public square."
Still, the federal government doesn't bring cases like this on a whim. "The FBI and Department of Justice have limited resources," says the University of Houston's Brandon Rottinghaus. "If they try to secure an indictment against you, and they are going to put their resources on the line, they've got something they think they can convict with."
The arraignment itself is only the first step in what's expected to be a long process. Kenneth Williams at South Texas College of Law Houston says it could take well over a year before the case goes to trial. Both sides will need that time to prepare, because the stakes for Stockman could hardly be higher.
"He's facing I think about 50 years imprisonment," Williams says. "And in federal prison, parole is much more difficult. You have to serve most of your sentence. So, it's doubtful he would see the light of day if he actually were convicted on most of these counts."
There's an additional significance to the Stockman trial. It's the first major corruption case brought against a sitting or former member of Congress since President Trump took office and Jeff Sessions became attorney general. While the case may have been built under President Obama's Justice Department, how it's prosecuted could indicate how the Trump administration will handle similar cases in the future.