Former majority leader Tom DeLay was back in his natural element Thursday, glad-handing lawmakers on the House floor in the building where he inspired a mix of fear, loathing and loyalty for a dozen years.
The Texas Republican had reason to celebrate: A three-judge appeals court panel ruled 2 to 1 along party lines Thursday to overturn his conviction on criminal charges of conspiring to funnel corporate money to state legislative candidates, calling the evidence “legally insufficient.”
Once one of Capitol Hill’s most powerful figures, DeLay, 66, left Congress nearly eight years ago after being indicted on the charges. “He just threw up his hands and walked out the door,” former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) recalled when he and DeLay learned of the former majority leader’s indictment. He was convicted in 2010 and later sentenced to three years in prison, though he did not serve any time while the case was on appeal.
“It’s a really happy day for me, and I just thank the Lord for carrying me through all of this,” DeLay said after the ruling, telling reporters that he was in the middle of a prayer meeting when he heard the news. “It really drove my detractors crazy because, you know, I had the joy of Jesus in me and they didn’t understand it.”
The Travis County, Tex., district attorney’s office said in a statement that it will appeal Thursday’s decision.
The ruling was a surprising coda for a man — nicknamed “The Hammer” — who embodied the ascendancy of conservative Republicans in the 1990s, helping to usher in an era of big money in politics and deploying elaborate electoral tactics to further GOP goals. Some of his closest allies and aides have served prison terms for violating federal election and ethics laws.
Unlike many of his comrades-in-arms from the 1994 Republican Revolution — who went on to lucrative careers as lobbyists, presidential candidates and strategists — DeLay has kept a generally low profile since leaving office in 2006. Close friends say that is unlikely to change even with his legal victory.
“In my mind, justice delayed is justice denied,” said Washington lobbyist Dan Mattoon, a close ally of DeLay and Hastert. “Good for him, but how do you get back the last nine to 10 years?”
DeLay has a modest lobbying practice and does occasional speaking engagements and work for social causes. He competed on the show “Dancing With the Stars” in 2009 and was spotted having lunch in December with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose illegal activities contributed to DeLay’s resignation from the House.
When asked if he planned to return to the political arena, DeLay said he “never left it” but would “probably not” run for elected office again. “There’s too much other things that the Lord wants me to do. But around the political arena, I’m around. They never got rid of me.”
He said he has raised and spent more than $12 million on legal fees since his first tussle with the House ethics committee, in 1995.
DeLay, who was in the House leadership during the politically disastrous government shutdowns in the 1990s, joked that he could help current House Republicans drum up support for their short-term spending plan.
The House is on a path to approve legislation Friday that would continue to fund the federal government in exchange for blocking implementation of President Obama’s health-care law, the Affordable Care Act — a move that threatens to lead to another shutdown.
“They haven’t asked me to, but I could do it,” he said.
Democrats targeted DeLay for years as he marshaled enormous sums from business interests and Christian conservatives, expanding Republican influence in Washington and in his home state. At one point, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee lodged racketeering charges against him, saying he pressured contributors to donate to the GOP and then directed the money to nonprofit political groups that did not disclose their activities.
That case was later dropped, but Travis CountyDistrict Attorney Ronnie Earle got better traction with a state case charging that DeLay had conspired to funnel illegal corporate campaign contributions into the state’s 2002 legislative elections.
In early 2001, DeLay and his top political aide decided they would create a political action committee designed to give Republicans control of the Texas House so they could redraw the state’s congressional map.
Public watchdog groups obtained documents showing the group gave $190,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee, an arm of the Republican National Committee that could accept corporate contributions. About two weeks later, the RNSEC donated $190,000 to seven Texas candidates from a separate account, which was barred from accepting corporate contributions, prompting prosecutors to accuse DeLay of skirting campaign finance laws.
The 2002 Texas contest was crucial because it allowed Republicans to push through a mid-decade redistricting map that helped the GOP win four additional federal House seats in Texas in 2004.
“The scheme DeLay orchestrated served both to put the Texas state government under Republican control and, in turn, strengthen DeLay’s own leadership position in Washington, D.C.,” said Craig Holman, Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist.
Matt Orwig, who served as U.S. attorney in Dallas and is now a partner with the firm Jones Day, said prosecutions involving campaign organizations such as the RNC are inherently difficult. “Some things just stink, but it’s not a crime,” he said. “And sometimes it is a crime.”
Orwig, a Republican, said the fact that DeLay faced charges in liberal Austin increased the chances he would be convicted. “You take an aggressive prosecutor, a friendly venue and a defendant who’s very unpopular within that venue, and you’re likely to have a conviction.”
During his days in Washington, DeLay demanded the allegiance of trade associations and corporation heads, ordered pizzas in massive quantities to win over staffers and members during late-night sessions, and created leadership PACs that vacuumed up cash from K Street and doled it out to lawmakers who toed the party line.
Now, only one of the colleagues who served in the senior leadership with DeLay, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), is still on Capitol Hill.
DeLay traveled to Washington this week to meet with Ken Wilde, a pastor from Boise, Idaho, and Tom Smith, the vice president of Men for Nations, a prayer group based in the District, about launching a new national prayer network. The men were gathered at Wilde’s National Prayer Center near the Capitol to pray about the case when the former congressman’s phone rang.
The case had been overturned. “Everyone was ecstatic,” Hall said. “He probably may never get his reputation back, but he’s vindicated.”
Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.