Tom DeLay was the very symbol of congressional power and, in the view of his detractors, excess. His political career collapsed in 2005 when Mr. DeLay, a Texas Republican who was the House majority leader, was indicted on money-laundering charges that resulted in a three-year prison sentence.
But Mr. DeLay's colorful life took another turn Thursday as a state appeals court in Austin threw out the November 2010 verdict, ruling that what he was convicted of -- laundering corporate contributions to divert money to elect Republicans to the state Legislature -- did not violate any state laws.
The decision by the 3rd Court of Appeals, which voted 2-1 on party lines, marked the latest time that a high-profile prosecution of an elected official invoking unusual legal theories has been stymied by an appeals court. Others who had convictions overturned include former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
From the start, many Republicans had denounced this prosecution as politically motivated overreach. Still, given the long list of ethical questions that have clouded Mr. DeLay's career -- the former congressman said he had spent nearly $12 million on legal bills, fending off everything from the Congressional Ethics Committee to the Department of Justice -- the decision appears to fall short of a complete ethical cleansing.
When he stepped down as majority leader in 2005, and later decided not to seek re-election from his district in Sugarland, Mr. DeLay, 66, faced not only the indictment in Texas but also an investigation by the Department of Justice into his relationship with Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist at the heart of an ethics investigation.
Mr. DeLay's lawyer, Brian W. Wice, said that the investigations had "ruined his life in large part," but that Mr. DeLay viewed the court decision as a vindication -- a chance to restart his career.
Mr. DeLay has been free on a $10,000 bond. He has been anything but low profile, delivering speeches, offering consulting advice, writing a blog and -- in a career turn that might have eclipsed his work in Washington -- appearing on "Dancing With the Stars" while wearing a vest with leopard trim.
"They never got rid of me," Mr. DeLay said. "You may see my shadow or footprints around over the last seven years."
This was the first time that prosecutors in Texas had attempted to use a money-laundering statute against a politician charged with trying to circumvent the state ban on corporate contributions that has been in place since 2003. Mr. DeLay never denied he engaged in the practices described in the indictment, but said they were common and legally accepted campaign practices.
"The evidence was legally insufficient to support DeLay's convictions," Justice Melissa Goodwin wrote for the majority. "The fundamental problem with the state's case was its failure to prove proceeds of criminal activity."
The Travis County district attorney's office said it was considering whether to appeal to the full Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.