A Texas appeals court acquitted former Rep. Tom DeLay of money laundering Thursday, closing an eight-year-long criminal case against the man who was once the most powerful Republican in Congress — but Democrats achieved their goal of keeping him on the political sidelines for all that time.
Mr. DeLay, who heard the news of his acquittal while he was in a prayer session Thursday morning in Washington, said the ruling confirms that he was playing by the rules and that it was always legal to swap money among different political groups as long as the types of contributions were kept separate.
"Free at last," Mr. DeLay told former colleagues in the hallways of the Capitol as they greeted him with hugs and handshakes of congratulations.
Mr. DeLay was accused of trying to game campaign finance laws to siphon large-dollar corporate donations to a Texas political action committee through a national party committee and then back to candidates for federal office in Texas.
A jury convicted him in 2010 of money laundering, but in Thursday's decision the appeals court ruled 2-1 that the initial donations to the PAC were legal, the transfer to the federal committee was legal, and the money the committee sent back to candidates was from the correct account.
"Rather than supporting an agreement to violate the election code, the evidence shows that the defendants were attempting to comply with the Election Code limitations on corporate contributions," Justice Melissa Goodwin wrote in the majority opinion.
They not only overturned the verdict but also entered a full acquittal.
Dissenting from the decision, Chief Justice J. Woodfin Jones said that the chain of events appears to be "an attempt to circumvent, rather than comply with, election code restrictions."
Hours afterward Mr. DeLay, carrying the ruling in a folder at the Capitol, told reporters that the decision was "embarrassing to the prosecution and to the judge" who tried the case.
As majority whip and then later as majority leader for House Republicans in the years after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, Mr. DeLay was a critical figure in driving policy, serving as the fulcrum that converted conservative principles into GOP legislation.
He made full use of congressional tools, including earmarks, to win support for that agenda, which ran from tax cuts to spending cuts to social-issues legislation — but also included the Medicare prescription drug plan that President Bush asked his party to approve in 2003. His strenuous efforts earned him the nickname "The Hammer."
He also was instrumental in pushing Republicans into key lobbying jobs in Washington.
He said those successes, though, also put a target on his back, beginning in 1996 when House Democrats raised the first ethics charges against him, followed by more charges in 1998 and 2002. There was also a civil racketeering lawsuit in 2000.
Mr. DeLay was admonished by the House ethics committee in 2004 for actions that gave the appearance of impropriety, but it was the criminal case in Texas that forced him to give up his leadership post in 2005 and resign in 2006.
He acknowledged Thursday that the Democratic strategy to oust him worked in the end, saying it amounted to a "criminalization of politics."
Still, he said, he kept his hand in politics.
"I haven't gone away," he said at the Capitol, where he attended the regular meeting of the Texas GOP congressional delegation. "Democrats had this strategy of taking me out, bankrupting me, destroying me. I'm still working on other projects and helping people for re-election. I never slowed down."
He said he may try to find an attorney to go after those who targeted him, including the Travis County district attorney.
"If you really look at this, this is an outrage and a violation of freedom, a violation of law and it's a violation of just decency," he said, characterizing former District Attorney Ronnie Earle as a "rogue district attorney" who had to go to six grand juries before he could find one that would hand up an indictment.
Mr. Earle, who retired in 2007, didn't return a message left at his private law office.
Local news reports said the current Travis County district attorney's office announced that it would seek a rehearing of the decision.
Texans for Public Justice, which filed the initial complaint that led to the court case, said the acquittal was political.
"We're disappointed but not surprised that two Republican appellate judges overturned the opinion of 12 jurors who agreed there was sufficient evidence to convict Tom DeLay of money laundering," the group said in a statement. "When a powerful Republican conspires to steal an election, powerful Republican judges will bail him out."
The Texas Democratic Party didn't respond to a request for comment.
Mr. DeLay faced a three-year prison sentence but didn't start serving it while his case was on appeal.
Outside of office, Mr. DeLay took a turn on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" program, though he withdrew in the middle of the competition on the advice of his doctor.
Stuart Roy, a former top staffer for Mr. DeLay, said the acquittal is a victory for people who want to engage in rough-and-tumble politics without turning it into a criminal affair.
"Regardless of which side of the aisle you're on, there are lots of people who understand you cannot take opponents and turn them into enemies. You can oppose someone politically, but that doesn't mean you turn them into criminals," he said.
But he said Mr. DeLay has been sacrificed for that cause.
"DeLay will never get that time back. As big a victory as this is, because he was acquitted, he'll never be able to unlive those years," Mr. Roy said.
Mr. DeLay said little will change for him. He said he has no plans to run for office, and instead will work on a book about reviving the Constitution in federal government.
But he said there is one change, thanks to having the felony conviction disappear from his record: "I can get my concealed weapon license back."
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