Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's prayers were answered Thursday when an Austin Court of Appeals voted 2 to 1 to throw out his conviction for illegally laundering corporate money in political campaigns, but prosecutors immediately said they would appeal the latest development in the 11-year-old case.
Attending a Washington, D.C., prayer group Thursday morning when his attorney called with the news, DeLay said he found vindication in the reversal of a jury verdict sentencing him to three years in prison for violating state campaign laws.
"We were all, basically, on our knees praying and my lawyer calls and says, 'You're a free man,' " DeLay told a group of reporters at the Capitol. "I just thank the Lord for carrying me through all of this … it really drove my detractors crazy because I had the joy of Jesus in me and they didn't understand it."
The former lawmaker, whose hard-driving political style inspired his nickname, "the Hammer," called the indictment "an outrageous criminalization of politics."
Jury's verdict defended
The Travis County District Attorney's Office released a statement "strongly disagreeing" with the appeals court ruling. Prosecutors said they plan to appeal the decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
"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," the statement read.
The vote by the 3rd Court of Appeals was 2-1. DeLay's prison sentence has been on hold during the appellate process.
Houston attorney Brian Wice said his client was elated at the news. "We're just gratified that two justices in the majority had the courage and the intellectual honesty to do what was not just fair, right and just, but what the law required."
'Checks' vs. 'cash'
DeLay was convicted in 2010 of illegally channeling $190,000 in corporate donations to Republicans running for the Texas Legislature. State law prohibits corporate campaign contributions to local races. A jury in Austin found that DeLay violated state law by sending $190,000 in corporate money to the Republican National Committee, and then directed the same amount to be sent to GOP candidates for the Texas Legislature.
"Because we conclude that the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain DeLay's convictions, we reverse the judgments of the trial court and render judgments of acquittal," the majority opinion by Justice Melissa Goodwin states. "The fundamental problem with the state's case was its failure to prove proceeds of criminal activity." Justice David Gaultney concurred.
Wice seized on that language in the decision because the money DeLay was handling was transferred by checks.
"In 2002, when this persecution began, the penal code defined 'criminal proceeds' not to include checks," Wice said. "It's an argument that is sometimes so simple, it evades detection. It's hiding in plain sight."
Although the law against money laundering now includes "checks," the original intent was to make it a criminal act to hide or secretly transfer cash, which is harder to trace, Wice said. Under the earlier law, Wice said, DeLay was not guilty.
Chief Justice J. Woodfin Jones dissented, writing, "I disagree with the majority's opinion that there was legally insufficient evidence to support a jury finding that the corporate contributions at issue here were the proceeds of criminal activity."
DeLay, 66, a conservative Republican from Sugar Land, ran an exterminating business before being elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1978 and winning a seat in Congress in 1984. He rose rapidly through the House leadership and was elected majority leader in 2002.
In 2005, a grand jury indicted DeLay on charges that he had conspired to violate campaign finance laws. DeLay reportedly sought donations to his political action committee from Enron and other corporations to help bankroll the redistricting of Texas to favor the election of more Republicans. He denied the charges, but resigned as majority leader.
The executive director of Texans for Public Justice, the group that filed the complaint that led to DeLay's indictment, suggested the Republican judges who issued Thursday's ruling were influenced by politics.
"He (DeLay) was wrong on the law and wrong on the facts, but politics bailed him out," Craig McDonald said. He said he hoped the Travis County district attorney's office would appeal the ruling to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Two co-defendants in the case pleaded guilty and paid fines. John Colyandro, who ran Texans for a Republican Majority, pleaded guilty in 2012 to a misdemeanor charge of accepting illegal political contributions and received deferred adjudication, which means there will be no final conviction if he completes probation. He also was fined $8,000.
Jim Ellis, a DeLay staff member, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of making an illegal campaign contribution. He received four years' probation and a $10,000 fine.
Their efforts helped produce a Republican majority in the Texas House, paving the way for a controversial mid-decade redistricting that helped win more congressional seats for the Republican Party from Texas.
Former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, who lost his office due to the redistricting plan, reacted with disappointment.
"When people don't follow the rules, there needs to be some kind of recourse. There are any number of instances in which DeLay didn't follow the rules with regard to the politics of our country," said Lampson, who ended up winning the seat left open by DeLay's resignation in 2006. He was defeated two years later.
"He brought significant change in the politics of our state and our country that has brought us to greater polarization and a crisis period with our Congress," said Lampson.
The decision brought a chorus of praise from U.S. representatives who said it was the right result.
"Tom Delay's conviction was based on a politically motivated prosecution for an alleged crime that did not exist," said Ted Poe, R-Humble. "It is unfortunate that it took the appellate courts years to reach the verdict of acquittal."
Reporter Stewart Powell in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.