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Court Throws Out Conviction of Ex-Rep. DeLay

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2011, file photo, Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay leaves the Travis Co. Jail after posting an appeals bond in Austin, Texas. A Texas appeals court tossed the criminal conviction of DeLay on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, saying there was insufficient evidence for a jury in 2010 to have found him guilty of illegally funneling money to Republican candidates. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett, File)

FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2011, file photo, Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay leaves the Travis Co. Jail after posting an appeals bond in Austin, Texas. A Texas appeals court tossed the criminal conviction of DeLay on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, saying there was insufficient evidence for a jury in 2010 to have found him guilty of illegally funneling money to Republican candidates. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett, File)

Washington — 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 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 district attorney’s office of Travis County, Texas said in a statement 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 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 today 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.