Bad news for Rush Limbaugh

It’s often hard to tell whether Rush Limbaugh is just deceiving his audience or whether he’s also deceiving himself. But his on-the-air defense against the money-laundering changes he may face simply missed the point, in legal terms. Even if the Florida authorities decide to give him a break, he could be in very big trouble — about three years’ in prison worth of trouble — if the Feds decide to go after him.

The accusation is that when Limbaugh was sending his housekeeper out to buy narcotics for him — and apparently threatening her once when she thought about not supplying him — he withdrew money from his bank in amounts just under $10,000, in order to avoid having to fill out the Currency Transaction Reports (CTRs) that would otherwise be required.

Limbaugh doesn’t seem to deny that. But he told his listeners, “I was not laundering money. I was withdrawing money for crying out loud.”

The bad news for Limbaugh is that, by law, “structuring” transations to avoid the CTR rules for money used in a drug deal constitutes the crime of money laundering.

Here’s the statutory language (18 U.S.C. Sec 1956):

Whoever, with the intent –

(A) to promote the carrying on of specified unlawful activity;

(B) to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, or control of property believed to be the proceeds of specified unlawful activity; or

(C) to avoid a transaction reporting requirement under State or Federal law,

conducts or attempts to conduct a financial transaction involving property represented to be the proceeds of specified unlawful activity, or property used to conduct or facilitate specified unlawful activity, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both.

For purposes of this paragraph and paragraph (2), the term ”represented” means any representation made by a law enforcement officer or by another person at the direction of, or with the approval of, a Federal official authorized to investigate or prosecute violations of this section.

That’s it. If Rushbo, in order to avoid a transactions reporting requirement, “structured” transactions to stay under the $10,000 trigger with money to be used for a drug buy (“property used to conduct or facilitate specified unlawful activity”), he’s toast.

Not being a specialist, I’m not sure what actual sentence he would likely face. The relevant guideline seems to be 2S1.3 If I read it correctly, “structuring” has a base offense level of 6, plus another two for doing so to facilitate an illicit transaction, plus a number determined by the amount of cash: 6 if the sum is more than $30,000, 8 if more than $70,000, 10 if more than $120,000, 12 if more than $200,000. That yields a total of between 14 and 20, and thus guideline ranges starting at 15 months and ranging up to 41 months.

I have heard from DEA sources that the new Administrator is really on a tear about money laundering and that there’s some interest in making Limbaugh the poster boy. If DEA sticks by that plan, there’s not much anyone else can do about it. The old “Thornburgh memo,” weakened under Reno but now back in full force under Ashcroft, requires federal prosecutors to charge the most servere offense they’re sure they can prove. (And proving this one is child’s play.)

So if DEA wants Limbaugh’s head for a trophy, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida — presumably Jeb’s choice, since Florida has two Democrats in the Senate — couldn’t decide to give him a break.

None of this is nearly as bad as what he’d face as a “drug trafficker” (defined by the quantity he possessed, not by any intent to sell) under Florida law, but it’s plenty bad enough.

While I’m on the subject, two other Limbaugh-related notes:

(1) William Bennett, who used to be so enthusiastic about sending middle-class drug users to jail because they serve as such a bad example to everyone else, seems to have decided to make an exception in Limbaugh’s case. If Bennett had any integrity, he’d be asking why the nation’s radio broadcasters are willing to give someone who undeniably has committed felony violations of and state and federal laws a national audience every day. But then if my grandmother had had beizim, she would have been my grandfather.

(2) Rush’s PR folks seem to have persuaded the newspapers to refer to his oxycodone and hydrocodone habit as “prescription drug abuse,” as if he had simply been dealing with overgenerous doctors. The drugs he was abusing are indeed available by prescription, but he wasn’t getting them prescribed. He was buying them on the illicit market.

The sad story of Limbaugh’s drug addiction wouldn’t be a total loss if it helped his fans and political allies rethink their position toward drug addicts in general. Noticing that they aren’t actually willing to apply the principles of tough love and zero tolerance to someone they care about, they might start to wonder whether those principles are really the ones we ought to be applying to drug addicts who aren’t famous or rich or well-connected. Instead, they’ve just gone into denial about the fact that Limbaugh’s case strongly resembles the case of other drug abusers.

Too bad.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: