Judge's ruling exposes TAB's campaign activitiesAustin American Statesman Editorial
Thursday, April 10, 2003
In allowing a Travis County grand jury investigation of the Texas Association of Business to continue, state District Judge Mike Lynch said the business lobby couldn't use the First Amendment to derail the investigative process.
Last fall, the TAB solicited nearly $2 million from secret corporate donors for a last-minute attack ad campaign designed to elect pro-business candidates to the Legislature. It is illegal in Texas for corporations to give money to candidate campaigns.
But TAB President Bill Hammond and the group's lawyers argue that the ads paid for by the corporations were educational, not expressly advocating the election or defeat of particular candidates. There is no disclosure requirement for educational, or issue, advertising.
Lynch said he did not have to decide whether the ads were educational or express advocacy forbidden to corporate donors. But ultimately, the answer to that question will decide if the TAB's campaign violated the law.
Any reasonable person would conclude that the TAB ads mailed to thousands of Texas voters clearly advocated electing or defeating candidates. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle made that point in court last week when he quoted from several of them.
Nevertheless, TAB attorney Andy Taylor defends the ads as a voter education campaign and vows to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court if he has to. Taylor insists that as long as the ads avoided certain words, such as "elect" or "defeat," they are issue ads, even when they named and pictured candidates. That's a fiction, of course, and it may take the highest court
in the land to declare it so.
Were the TAB to prevail, that would end the ban on corporate support for candidates and kill the required disclosure of political donors. By avoiding half a dozen specific words, any wealthy individual or corporation could give unlimited amounts of money in secret and no one would be allowed to know who gave or how much they gave.
That, of course, would turn Texas election law upside down -- which is one of the reasons the district attorney is putting the question before the grand jury. Disclosure is the gold standard in politics, and Earle is right to fight to protect it from destruction by the TAB.
Hammond and the TAB are sparing nothing to protect the identity of the secret corporate donors. Why? Because the donors funded an execrable campaign of questionable legality that would reflect badly on them if they were exposed.
It may be years before a court finally determines whether the TAB ads were illegal or not. In the meantime, the business lobby has been exposed for its efforts to rewrite election law and run state government from corporate offices.
The Legislature could correct this by changing the law to prohibit corporate or secret donors from paying for any ad that mentions a candidate by name or includes a picture. But that is asking a lot of a Legislature that includes many members who benefited from TAB's disreputable campaign in the fall.