Texas PAC sent blank check to WashingtonBy Laylan Copelin, Austin American-Statesman
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
When Jim Ellis, a key aide to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, was preparing to deliver money to an arm of the Republican National Committee, a DeLay ally in Texas had a blank check sent to Ellis with the amount to be filled in later.
John Colyandro, executive director of DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority, said in a deposition that he had the blank check sent because Ellis had a meeting with Republican National Committee officials scheduled the next day.
It has been known for almost a year that Texans for a Republican Majority gave $190,000 in corporate donations, which could not be donated legally to candidates, to the Republican National State Elections Committee. In a single day two weeks later, the national committee cut seven checks to Texas House candidates totaling $190,000 in money that could be legally given to candidates.
The contributions are part of a criminal investigation of whether corporate money was illegally used in the 2002 state legislative elections.
Colyandro and officials of the Republican National Committee have always contended that the $190,000 amounts were a coincidence. The blank check, however, raises questions about who determined the amount and how they arrived at that number: Did Ellis, who also played a key role at Texans for a Republican Majority, fill in the amount? Did he negotiate the amount with national GOP officials?
Officials of the Republican National Committee said they didn't know who met with Ellis or who decided to send money to Texas.
"You are going to have to talk to Jim Ellis about how he came to the conclusion of $190,000," said Lindsay Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "No one would have come in here with a blank check."
Ellis referred questions to his lawyer, who declined comment. Colyandro did not return calls seeking comment.
In Texas, the law bars using corporate donations as campaign expenditures.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, is already investigating whether the Republican organizations were laundering corporate donations into money that could be given legally to Texas candidates. It's part of Earle's broader investigation into whether Republican officials and their business allies illegally used corporate donations in 2002 to affect the outcome of 22 pivotal state House campaigns.
The 2002 Republican landslide led to the GOP takeover of the Legislature, the election of Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, as House speaker and the fulfillment of DeLay's wish for state lawmakers to draw new congressional districts that should give DeLay more allies in Congress this fall.
Questions about the blank check came up in a December deposition that Colyandro gave as part of a lawsuit brought by four Democratic candidates who lost in 2002. They are suing Texans for a Republican Majority, claiming it illegally used corporate donations to defeat them. Colyandro and the committee have denied any wrongdoing.
In his deposition, Colyandro said he sent an e-mail to the committee's accountant on Sept. 10, 2002.
"Send a blank soft dollar account check to Jim Ellis," wrote Colyandro, using political shorthand for corporate money. "Needs to arrive tomorrow."
Colyandro said the urgency was because Ellis had scheduled a meeting with the Republican National Committee.
"The meeting was taking place that next day," Colyandro said, "so it needed to be in his hands."
In his deposition, Colyandro was never asked -- and didn't explain -- why he didn't fill out an amount for the check.
He said only that Texans for a Republican Majority had always intended to give $200,000 to the Texas Victory Committee but that that state group didn't need the money.
Russell Anderson, the Republican majority group's accountant, also gave a deposition. He said that he double-checked Colyandro's instructions to send a blank check to Ellis, then cut the check.
When he learned that the national GOP had made $190,000 in donations to the Texas candidates, Anderson said in his deposition, he never worried about its legality because he knew an army of Republican Party lawyers would have double-checked any transaction.
"I'm completely confident . . . that one has been inspected more than any transaction in the whole realm," Anderson said.
In his deposition, Colyandro explained that Texans for a Republican Majority had an excess of corporate donations because the committee was running out of time to use it.
It might be expected that Texans for a Republican Majority would return the money to Washington, D.C., because it had so many connections there.
DeLay, R-Sugar Land, led both Americans for a Republican Majority and its Texas version.
DeLay's national committee provided $75,000 in seed money for the Texas group.
Ellis, the executive director of Americans for a Republican Majority, also helped create the Texas committee, which paid him as a consultant. Also, DeLay's corporate fund-raiser, Warren Robold, had tapped lobbyists in Washington for most of the $600,000 in corporate donations to Texans for a Republican Majority.
Finally, Colyandro was a longtime friend to Ellis, who invited him to play golf at a DeLay fund-raiser at Disney World in the fall of 2001 -- about the same time Texans for a Republican Majority was being launched.
Larry Noble of the Center of Responsive Politics, which tracks federal campaign spending, said there may have been a benefit for the Republican National Committee to accept recycled corporate donations.
He said changes in federal campaign laws, effective after the 2002 elections, were forcing the national political parties to adjust their accounts: "The money was sorting itself out."