Texas’ highest criminal court agreed Wednesday with a lower court’s decision to throw out money-laundering and conspiracy charges against former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The 8-1 ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals finally puts to rest the nine-year legal saga that ended the Texas Republican’s career as one of the nation’s most powerful and controversial officeholders.
When a Travis County grand jury indicted DeLay in 2005, he was considered the second most powerful Texan — behind President George W. Bush — in Washington, D.C. He was nicknamed “The Hammer” for his hard-hitting leadership style.
Today, at 67, DeLay is a political consultant who intends on helping build the conservative base. He has written a political memoir, blogs and was a contestant on TV’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
In 2010, a Travis County jury convicted the Sugar Land Republican of conspiring to launder $190,000 of corporate money into campaign donations to seven Texas legislative candidates.
DeLay’s political committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, gave the Republican National Committee $190,000 in corporate money in exchange for the same amount of political donations from individuals. State law prohibits corporations from donating to a candidate for campaign purposes.
On Wednesday, the state’s highest court agreed with last year’s lower court decision that Travis County prosecutors had insufficient evidence to convict DeLay.
DeLay’s political committee could legally donate corporate money to the Republican National Committee and the national organization could legally make political donations to Texas candidates, the court found in its majority opinion.
It further states that the agreement to swap money didn’t constitute conspiracy and that DeLay did not “knowingly” violate the law.
“No matter how much you want to, no matter how hard you try, you cannot manufacture an illegal act out of series of legal ones,” said Brian Wice, DeLay’s appellate lawyer.
Wice said his client was pleased to be vindicated: “He was elated, he was gratified, but he wasn’t surprised.”
DeLay faced a three-year prison sentence if he had lost his appeal.
The majority opinion noted that the corporate money and the Republican National Committee’s political donations were never commingled.
“It cannot be said that the Texas candidates ever received corporate contributions, even indirectly,” the opinion said.
“This is a judicial smack-down,” Wice said of the 8-1 opinion.
He likened the prosecution to a persecution: “Every time Tom and his defense team tried to state the obvious, we were turned away — whether it was (trial) Judge Pat Priest with his novel legal theory or the jury dazzled by the sand the prosecutors threw in their eyes.”
The DeLay case dates to the 2002 elections, when DeLay and his allies were trying to elect a GOP majority to the Texas Legislature that, in turn, would draw congressional districts more favorable to Republicans.
Two of DeLay’s aides, Jim Ellis and John Colyandro, received probated sentences as the result of plea bargains to lesser charges.
The legal saga was littered with charges and countercharges about political partisanship.
Several judges were challenged on partisan grounds and either removed or stepped aside during the proceedings.
Even Wednesday’s decision had an element of that.
The eight judges who sided with DeLay are Republicans. The lone dissenter is Judge Lawrence Meyers, a former Republican on the appellate court, who has switched parties to run as a Democrat this year for the Texas Supreme Court.
In his dissent, Meyers wrote that “the majority in this case has changed the law and ignored the facts in order to arrive at a desired outcome. The reality here is that the majority is eager to keep (DeLay) from going to prison, and, as a result, it has done one better than what the appellant’s attorney even asked for.”
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said the court has effectively repealed the state law prohibiting corporate donations to candidates and places an impossible burden on the state to prosecute violators of that ban.
“The decision undermines the fairness and integrity of our elections,” she said in a written statement.
Tom DeLay case timeline
Nov. 28, 2001: U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay leads Texas GOP officials in launching Texans for a Republican Majority to elect a GOP majority in the Texas Legislature.
Nov. 5, 2002: Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, opens an investigation into allegations of campaign finance violations shortly after Republicans win control of the Legislature.
March 31, 2003: The investigation expands to include Texans for a Republican Majority, which is accused of laundering $190,000 of corporate money into campaign donations.
Oct. 12, 2003: The Legislature approves a new congressional map, at the behest of DeLay, after 10 months of political infighting. Prosecutors would later cite redistricting as DeLay’s motive for violating state campaign laws.
August 2005: DeLay meets behind closed doors with prosecutors, but he fails to persuade them not to pursue an indictment. A transcript from that meeting becomes evidence at his 2010 trial.
Oct. 3, 2005: A grand jury indicts DeLay on money-laundering and conspiracy charges.
Jan. 7, 2006: DeLay resigns as U.S. House majority leader because the indictment disqualifies him under GOP rules. He vows to win re-election.
April 3, 2006: DeLay shocks supporters by announcing he is quitting his re-election battle and retiring from Congress after 11 terms.
Nov. 24, 2010: A Travis County jury finds DeLay guilty of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Jan. 10, 2011: Judge Pat Priest sentences DeLay to three years in prison.
Sept. 19, 2013: A split 3rd Court of Appeals reverses DeLay’s conviction and sentence, saying the evidence was “legally insufficient.”
Oct. 1, 2014: On 8-1 vote, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirms 3rd Court of Appeals’ decision to throw out charges against DeLay.