HOUSTON -- Tom DeLay, who was forced out as Republican House majority leader in 2005 because of felony money laundering charges, was exonerated Thursday by a Texas appeals court.
The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals said the evidence in the case was "legally insufficient," and in a sharp 2-1 ruling, with two Republican judges ruling against a dissenting Democrat, the court cleared DeLay, a fierce GOP conservative. DeLay had represented a Houston district, and as House leader earned the nickname "The Hammer" for his iron-fisted control of his colleagues.
"It is ordered, adjudged and decreed by the Court that the trial court's judgments of conviction be reversed; and judgments are rendered that the defendant, Thomas Dale DeLay, is not guilty of the offenses of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, as charged in the indictment," the court ruled in a 22-page decision. The court said DeLay, now 66, would "be discharged from all further liability for such offenses and charges."
In 2011, a jury convicted DeLay of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering for helping funnel corporate money to Texas candidates. He was accused of conspiring with two associates to use his Texas-based political action committee to send a check for $190,000, raised from corporate donors, to the Republican National Committee. The RNC then sent the same amount to seven Texas House candidates.
Prosecutors argued that the money helped the GOP take control of the Texas House, which redrew congressional districts so that more Republicans were sent to Congress in 2004, strengthening DeLay's power. DeLay, who was sentenced to three years in prison, had been free on bail pending his appeal.
"He's ecstatic," attorney Brian Wice said after telling DeLay of the decision.
"He's gratified. He's just a little bit numb," Wice told the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview. "I'm hoping with today's victory, he will be able to resume his life as he once knew it."
The Travis County district attorney's office said it will seek an appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
"We strongly disagree with the opinion" of the judges who overturned the conviction, Dist. Atty. Rosemary Lehmberg said in a statement emailed to reporters. "We are concerned and disappointed that two judges substituted their assessment of the facts for that of 12 jurors who personally heard the testimony of over 40 witnesses over the course of several weeks and found that the evidence was sufficient and proved DeLay's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
Wice said he wasn't worried about an appeal. "The situation here is that a Court of Appeals has ruled that the case is legally insufficient. It is time to pour the Gatorade bucket over your head."
Before entering politics, DeLay ran a exterminating company, earning one of his early nicknames, "The Exterminator." He was known throughout his political career as a battling conservative and was elected majority leader after the 2002 midterm elections. DeLay has been consulting and lecturing on college campuses, Wice said. DeLay also had a short, but memorable, stint on the television show "Dancing With The Stars." His attorney said he did not know if DeLay would seek political office again, but others suggested that was in the past.
"There may be appeals but it seems very doubtful that he will ever set foot in jail and may be able to put this chapter behind him and look toward the future," said Mark Jones, chair of the political science department at Rice University in Houston. "His political career is over."
DeLay may have been acquitted, Jones said, but "he still was tried and convicted, the result overturned by a non-unanimous vote with two Republicans voting against a Democrat. There's a significant part of the electorate that's still going to view him in a negative light."
The political landscape has also shifted since DeLay held sway, Jones noted.
"DeLay in today's world is much more of a centrist Republican. DeLay was the quintessential pragmatic Republican — he was much more concerned with obtaining and exercising power and big political issues rather than ideological policy litmus tests," he said.
The rules concerning political fundraising have also changed since DeLay was charged, especially with the Citizens United case, to the extent that what he did could have been accomplished legally today via PACs, Jones said.
In a testament to DeLay's status, the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington immediately condemned the ruling.
"During his time in Congress, no one did more to undermine federal and state campaign finance laws than Tom DeLay. It is deplorable that an appellate court has overturned Mr. DeLay's fair and just conviction on money laundering charges," executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement.
"It is a sad day for all Americans when Tom DeLay — one of the most corrupt politicians to ever walk the halls of the Capitol — once again slithers away," she said.