Inquiry of campaign money about election integrityEditorial Board, Monday, March 1, 2004
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's investigation of corporate election campaign contributions will shape the political life of this state for years to come, and he shouldn't back off because of self-serving complaints of partisanship. The issues involved are too serious.
At the heart of his investigation is whether several key Republican officials, their political aides and some corporations broke state law by spending money from corporate treasuries to benefit Texas GOP House candidates in the 2002 election. The investigation already has involved U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland and Mike Toomey of Austin, chief of staff to Gov. Rick Perry.
Much of the general public may be indifferent or cynical about this investigation: Don't corporations give money to campaigns all the time? Isn't Earle, a Democrat, just doing this for political reasons, as some Republicans already are charging?
The answer is "no" to both questions: State law has banned direct corporate contributions to election campaigns since 1905, and Earle, a Democrat, is risking retaliation against his office by a Republican-dominated Legislature.
State law bars corporate contributions to election campaigns because elected officials are supposed to represent real people, constituents -- not corporations, though too often they forget that distinction even without corporate donations.
Also, many shareholders would never agree to have their investment spent in part on political candidates -- especially on ones they oppose but management or bigger shareholders favor. For the same reason, the same law bars unions from making political contributions with their members' dues.
Corporate executives and other employees are free to give as much of their own money to political candidates as they want, either as direct contributions or via political action committees. No individual's free speech is suppressed by barring corporate campaign contributions.
As for Earle, the last major officeholder who gave up his job because of charges filed by Earle's office was former House Speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth -- a Democrat. In a plea bargain, Lewis pleaded guilty in 1992 to two misdemeanor ethics charges; he also announced he would not run for re-election. (Earle later pursued charges against then-state Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, but dropped them because of an adverse ruling from the judge as the trial was about to begin. She moved on -- to the U.S. Senate.)
Earle knows that by challenging such well-placed Republicans as DeLay and Craddick that the Legislature, which has a solid Republican majority in both chambers, could slap new restrictions on his office and reduce or eliminate appropriations for its Public Integrity Unit. The safe thing for Earle would be to do nothing.
But this is too important for Earle to do nothing. Corporations already exert enormous influence on state government; Texans must be protected from wholesale corporate purchase of their political candidates.