AUSTIN, Texas -- A 3rd Court of Appeals panel, split 2-to-1 along partisan lines, on Thursday reversed the money-laundering and conspiracy convictions that ended the political career of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seven years ago.
The Texas Republican was facing a three-year prison sentence before the court’s majority opinion ruled that there was “legally insufficient evidence” at DeLay’s 2010 trial before a Travis County jury.
The court, in effect, acquitted DeLay of all charges. He had been free on bond, pending the appeal.
Brian Wice, DeLay’s appellate lawyer, said he told his client: “When I see you, I’m going to dump a Gatorade bucket over your head. We won the Super Bowl.”
However, Thursday’s victory for DeLay does not end the long-running case -- dating back to the 2002 elections -- because Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg promised to appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
’’We are absolutely going to appeal it,” she said. “We strongly disagree with the opinion.”
Lehmberg, a Democrat, said she was particularly concerned that two appellate justices substituted their judgment on the facts of the case that 12 jurors heard for weeks.
The politically charged case has frequently split along partisan lines as it has wound itself through the courts for years.
Thursday’s decision was no different.
Justice Melissa Goodwin of Austin wrote the majority opinion, joined by visiting Justice David Gaultney. Both are Republicans. Chief Justice Woody Jones, a Democrat, dissented.
DeLay was accused of conspiring to launder corporate donations into campaign contributions to state lawmakers during the 2002 legislative elections. State law forbids corporations to give campaign donations to candidates, although companies can give money to pay the overhead of political committees.
Prosecutors argued that DeLay’s motive was to elect a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature to redraw congressional districts and tighten his grip as a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The heart of the criminal case was a $190,000 transaction in the waning weeks of the 2002 elections. Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee led by DeLay, exchanged $190,000 of its corporate donations for the same amount of legal donations to candidates from an arm of the Republican National Committee.
In her opinion, Goodwin concluded, “The fundamental problem with the State’s case was its failure to prove proceeds of criminal activity.”
She noted that the jury on two occasions asked trial Judge Pat Priest whether the $190,000 was “illegal at the start of the transaction” or “procured by illegal means originally.”
Goodwin said prosecutors did not prove that point -- a critical element to conspiring to launder money -- and the judge never answered the jurors’ questions. Instead, Priest referred them to the jury charge.
Dick DeGuerin, who represented DeLay at the trial, speculated that the jury might have acquitted his client had the judge answered the questions.
’’It’s hard to second guess what a jury does,” DeGuerin said. “But clearly, the jury was asking the right question.”
The majority opinion also noted that the corporate money and the campaign donations were kept in separate accounts, never mingled and thus “not tainted.”
Likewise, the opinion said the evidence showed that all parties to the $190,000 transaction were attempting to comply with the Election Code, as opposed to conspiring to break the law.
And, finally, Goodwin wrote that corporate witnesses all testified that they intended their donations to be used legally.
Jones disagreed in his dissent.
’’A rational juror hearing the evidence presented in this trial could have found that the relevant corporate contributions to TRMPAC were made with the intent that they be used to support individual candidates or be put to other purposes not authorized” by the state election laws.
Wice said DeLay and his legal team are gratified and relieved by Thursday’s decision.
’’What happened today is fair, right and just,” he said.
But Wice said the legal case was an ordeal for his client who retired from Congress in 2006 because of the indictments. Since then, Wice said DeLay has worked as a consultant and lectures.
’’Tom was supposed to be living his golden years,” Wice said. “They ruined his life.”