The man they called "the Hammer," who used Democrats as anvils, got a little satisfaction Thursday. An appeals court in Texas reversed the money-laundering conviction of Tom DeLay and told him to go and sin no more.
Time and events move quickly in the modern media, and a new crime of the century arrives with the noise of every news cycle. The final acquittal of Tom DeLay, who was once the Republican majority leader in the House, is but a footnote to the news. He was once the most feared man on Capitol Hill, merciless in pursuit, and like all successful politicians, blinded by partisanship when the occasion called for the skills of a blind partisan.
He was convicted three years ago on state charges of devising a scheme to send $190,000 in corporate campaign contributions to seven Texas candidates for the Texas House of Representatives, who were needed to redraw congressional districts for Republican advantage. Such contributions are against the law, but money, as Mr. DeLay knew, is "fungible." He arranged to send the money to the Republican National Committee, which is not against the law, with the understanding that the committee would send 190,000 other dollars to Texas. That was not against the law, either.
If this smells funny to the high-minded and unlettered in the dark arts of politics, the prosecution of Mr. DeLay, 66, by an ambitious political hack in Austin gave off the whiff of authentic rot. The appeals court said the prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, "failed in [the] burden to prove that the funds that were delivered to the seven candidates were ever tainted."
The hack who started it all is retired now at 71, a footnote himself. He was briefly touted for governor after the DeLay verdict, but settled for a run for lieutenant governor, which he lost. He had made a reputation in Austin as ruthless (he once indicted an 11-year-old girl for the capital murder of a 2-year-old) and reckless, relentless in pursuit of Republicans. He indicted Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for "misuse of state telephones" when she was the state treasurer, and when he attempted to drop the charges for lack of evidence, the presiding judge directed that the case go to a jury for a "not guilty" verdict so Mr. Earle couldn't file the charges again.
Mr. DeLay tried to get the case against him moved from the Austin hotbed of partisanship for a trial somewhere else in Texas, to El Paso or Amarillo or Texarkana. Requests were denied. The jury selected from Austin and Travis County heard 30 prosecution witnesses and five from Mr. DeLay over three weeks and deliberated for 19 hours before returning verdicts of guilty of money laundering and conspiracy. Mr. DeLay posted bond three hours later and had been at liberty since.
Facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison, and with the choice of the jury or the judge imposing the sentence, he chose the judge. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several members of Congress gave testimony in his behalf before sentencing. He was ordered to prison for three years, eligible for parole.
Mr. DeLay insisted the so-called "money swap" was legal, and indeed expensive lawyers and clever accountants are trained in many ways to move soiled money around without disturbing the law. "This is an abuse of power," he said after the verdict was read. "It's a miscarriage of justice, and I maintain that I am innocent. The criminalization of politics undermines our very system, and I'm disappointed in the outcome." But that was not yet the final outcome, and he was free to call in favors and raise money. Before the appeals were done, Mr. DeLay spent $12 million on lawyers.
In one of the frequent small ironies of politics, the Hammer had come to Washington to pray with organizers of a national prayer movement. "This drove my detractors crazy because, you know, I had the joy of Jesus Christ through me, and they don't understand that." He was on his knees at prayer Thursday when his lawyer called to say: "You're a free man."
He sounds through with politics. He probably won't run for office again. "There's too many other things the Lord wants me to do." Like the Old Testament psalmist, the Hammer, free at last, would "rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness." The Gospel will do that for you.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.