At the height of his power, Tom DeLay was called “The Hammer” by friends and foes alike. Indictment and conviction on money-laundering and conspiracy charges made him the nail for the better part of the past decade.
A 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 3rd Court of Appeals based in Austin reversed DeLay’s conviction last week, but the legal odyssey that began in 2003 is not yet over. As is the case in most criminal trials, this appellate victory comes at a high financial and personal cost. This case is a classic example of how the gray areas deliberately painted into campaign finance laws are really a legal jungle in which personal lives and careers can be lost.
One of DeLay’s lawyers characterized the 2-1 victory as “winning the Super Bowl.” Maybe so, but it took DeLay and his expensive legal team seven years to get this far, and there is still some legal football to be played. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg — first assistant district attorney at the time DeLay was indicted — said she’ll ask for the The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review the ruling of the three-judge panel that decided in DeLay’s favor Thursday. If the panel’s ruling sticks, DeLay avoids the three-year sentence imposed in 2010 by a Travis County jury.
The conviction and last week’s reversal were as polarizing as DeLay was at the height of a political career that took him from the Texas House to the U.S. House. The Sugar Land Republican built a reputation as a staunch conservative. When he reached positions of party leadership as a congressman, he was known as a strict enforcer of the party line — thus the Hammer moniker.
His high profile made him a tempting target, and his role in directing money into Texas legislative races in the 2002 elections gave then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, a reason to investigate.
As one lawyer who was not involved in the case explained, the law at the time seemed simple enough. Corporate money can legally flow into a political action committee. Corporate money to individual candidates, however, was illegal in Texas.
At trial, transactions between Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee led by DeLay, and the Republican National Committee were outlined. Corporate donations totaling $190,000 were passed from TRMPAC to the Republican National Committee. The national committee, in turn, sent $190,000 back to Texas to distribute among Texas House candidates. Prosecutors called that money laundering, and the jury agreed.
The appeals court panel disagreed. If the full nine-member court affirms that ruling, then the DeLay file will finally be closed.
Meanwhile, Republicans will say that partisan zeal drove Earle to prosecute DeLay, and Democrats will say that partisan zeal drove Republican appellate judges to overturn the conviction.
The likelihood that the Texas Legislature will move to clarify ambiguities in the law is nil. After all, the laws work just fine for state lawmakers.
But maybe they should take a closer look at DeLay.
DeLay insisted he did nothing wrong, but in 2006 — under pressure from fellow Republicans — the once mighty majority leader resigned the leadership post and left Congress. He became a consultant and even did an embarrassing turn on “Dancing With the Stars.” The TV appearance prompted more than one than comment on how the mighty fall hard when they topple.
Then there was all the expense incurred in getting to trial, and then the trial itself and the hammer blow of the guilty verdict and the possibility that DeLay might actually have to serve time. Then the wait as the case worked its way through the appellate courts.
It took DeLay from 2003 until last week to score in this Super Bowl, as his lawyer put it. The best years of his career are gone. Some victory.
“Tom was supposed to be living his golden years,” Brian Wice, DeLay’s appellate lawyer, told the American-Statesman’s Laylan Copelin. “They ruined his life.”
Some victory indeed.