AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas appeals court on Thursday overturned the money-laundering and conspiracy convictions that ended the political career of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seven years ago.
The Texas Republican was facing a three-year prison sentence before the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals’ majority opinion ruled that there was “legally insufficient evidence” at DeLay’s 2010 trial before a Travis County jury.
The court, which split 2-1 along partisan lines, acquitted DeLay of all charges. He had been free on bond, pending the appeal.
DeLay was at a Washington, D.C., prayer meeting when he learned of the decision, according to media reports.
“We were all basically on our knees praying, and our lawyer calls and says, ‘You’re a free man,’ ” he said at the U.S. Capitol, where he was attending the weekly Texas congressional delegation lunch.
Brian Wice, DeLay’s appellate lawyer, said he told his client: “When I see you, I’m going to dump a Gatorade bucket over your head. We won the Super Bowl.” However, Thursday’s victory for DeLay doesn’t end the long-running case — dating to the 2002 elections — because Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said she would ask the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review the decision.
“We are absolutely going to appeal it,” said Lehmberg, a Democrat.
“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,” Lehmberg said in a written statement.
The politically charged case has frequently split along partisan lines as it wound through the courts for years. Thursday’s decision was no different.
Justice Melissa Goodwin of Austin wrote the majority opinion, joined by visiting Justice David Gaultney from the Beaumont court of appeals. Both are Republicans. Chief Justice Woodie Jones, a Democrat, dissented.
DeLay was accused of conspiring to launder corporate donations into campaign contributions to state lawmakers during the 2002 legislative elections. State law prohibits corporations from giving campaign donations to candidates, although companies can give money to political committees to pay overhead.
Prosecutors argued that DeLay’s motive was to elect a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature to redraw congressional districts and tighten his grip as a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The heart of the criminal case was a $190,000 transaction in the waning weeks of the 2002 elections. Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee led by DeLay, exchanged $190,000 of its corporate donations for the same amount of legal donations to candidates from an arm of the Republican National Committee.
In her opinion, Goodwin concluded, “The fundamental problem with the state’s case was its failure to prove proceeds of criminal activity.” She noted that the jury on two occasions asked trial Judge Pat Priest whether the $190,000 was “illegal at the start of the transaction” or “procured by illegal means originally.” Goodwin said prosecutors didn’t prove that point — a critical element to conspiring to launder money — and the judge never answered the jurors’ questions. Instead, Priest referred them to the jury charge.
Dick DeGuerin, who represented DeLay at the trial, speculated that the jury might have acquitted his client had the judge answered the questions.
“It’s hard to second-guess what a jury does,” DeGuerin said. “But clearly, the jury was asking the right question.” The majority opinion also noted that the corporate money and the campaign donations were kept in separate accounts, never mingled and thus “not tainted.” Likewise, the opinion said the evidence showed that all parties to the $190,000 transaction were attempting to comply with the Election Code, as opposed to conspiring to break the law.
And, finally, Goodwin wrote that corporate witnesses all testified that they intended their donations to be used legally.
Jones disagreed in his dissent: “A rational juror hearing the evidence presented in this trial could have found that the relevant corporate contributions to TRMPAC were made with the intent that they be used to support individual candidates or be put to other purposes not authorized” by the state election laws.
Wice said that DeLay and his legal team are gratified and relieved by Thursday’s decision.
“What happened today is fair, right and just,” he said.
Wice said the legal case was an ordeal for his client, now 66, who retired from Congress in 2006 because of the indictments.
Since then, Wice said that DeLay has worked as a consultant and occasionally lectures.
“Tom was supposed to be living his golden years,” Wice said. “They ruined his life.”