Rep. Tom DeLay isn't out of the legal woods yet and won't be able to reclaim his post as House majority leader in January even though a state judge on Monday dismissed conspiracy charges against the Texas Republican.
DeLay still faces a money laundering charge and conspiracy to commit money laundering charge brought by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Earle alleges that DeLay and two Republican fund-raisers, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate donations to 2002 Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature.
Under Texas law, corporate money cannot be directly used for political campaigns, but it can be used for administrative purposes.
Judge Pat Priest , who is presiding over the case against DeLay, issued the ruling after a hearing late last month in which DeLay's attorney argued that the indictment was fatally flawed.
DeLay lawyer Dick DeGuerin argued that one of the charges — conspiracy to violate the Texas election code — did not even take effect until September 2003, a year after the alleged offenses occurred. Priest agreed and dismissed that charge.
But he did not agree with DeGuerin's argument that a check allegedly sent to the Republican National Committee by DeLay's political action committee for Texas state candidates was not actual "funds" and therefore did not constitute money laundering.
"If the state can prove that funds were obtained from corporate contributors by these defendants with the express intent of converting those funds to the use of individual candidates, or if the state can prove that these defendants entered into an agreement to convert the monies already on hand, though originally received for lawful purposes ... then they will have established that money was laundered," Priest wrote.
"The money would have become 'dirty money' at the point that it began to be held with the prohibited intent. Of course, if the state cannot establish that beyond a reasonable doubt, then the defendants will be entitled to be acquitted," Priest added.
The money laundering charges that remain are the far more serious of the charges though they are harder to prove, said FOX News legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano.
"That's the one that includes the serious, heavy jail time should he be convicted. That's still in there," Napolitano said. Conspiracy to violate the Texas election code carries up to two years in prison. Money laundering is punishable by five years to life. Conspiracy to commit money laundering carries two years.
"If he could have gotten it reversed ... he'd be much happier. The heaviest charges in terms of jail time ... those two charges are still here and they can't be resolved [through a judge's ruling], they have to be resolved through a jury trial," Napolitano said.
Despite the news that DeLay will still have to face a jury trial, his spokesman said the congressman is pleased with Priest's ruling.
"The court's decision to dismiss Ronnie Earle's numerous charges against Mr. DeLay underscores just how baseless and politically motivated the charges were," DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said.
"Mr. DeLay is very encouraged by the swift progress of the legal proceedings and looks forward to his eventual and absolute exoneration based on the facts and the law," Madden added.
"We have received the opinion from Judge Priest and we are studying it," Earle's office said in a statement. "We have made no decision about whether to appeal any part of his ruling."
The 11-term congressman had hoped to have the case wrapped up before January so he could return to the leadership post he was forced to give up when the indictment came down in September.
Currently, Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has been serving as acting majority leader. The new session of this Congress starts in late January, and some rank-and-file Republicans have expressed concern that DeLay's legal troubles could distract from GOP objectives and its agenda ahead of the midterm election. However, DeLay is not required to announce he is stepping aside permanently, and a ruling could decide his fate for him.
By not stepping aside, DeLay does invite continued calls of a "culture of corruption" from minority Democrats, who continue to suggest that DeLay's troubles are indicative of an entire party plagued by cronyism.
"This is not a vindication. Congressman DeLay still faces very serious criminal charges. "Republicans' culture of corruption is alive and well," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Priest said at the Nov. 22 hearing that it was unlikely a trial could be convened before the start of the new year. DeLay's next court appearance is likely to be sometime between Christmas and New Year's Day.
"In terms of the legal jeopardy that he will face in January, and in terms of his ability to solve this before the Republicans vote for leadership ... they have suffered a stinging defeat," Napolitano said of DeLay's team.
With DeLay's help, the GOP took control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years, then pushed through a congressional redistricting plan engineered by DeLay that resulted in the election of Republicans to House seats, turning over the Texas delegation to Congress to a Republican majority.
FOX News' Jim Mills and The Associated Press contributed to this report.