Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A pro-GOP group at the center of a campaign finance investigation exchanged 92 telephone calls over four months with Tom Craddick as he built a network of legislative backers to become House speaker.

Craddick, PAC spoke often in '02 campaign

Lawyer: Calls weren't about influencing race for speaker's post

By CHRISTY HOPPE / Dallas Morning News
July 21, 2004

AUSTIN _ A pro-GOP group at the center of a campaign finance investigation exchanged 92 telephone calls over four months with Tom Craddick as he built a network of legislative backers to become House speaker.

The calls surrounding the 2002 general election closely tie Mr. Craddick to the political action committee known as Texans for a Republican Majority, or TRMPAC. A political watchdog group whose complaints prompted a grand jury investigation said that the calls could indicate a coordinated effort in the speaker's race, which is supposed to be free of outside influence.

An attorney for Mr. Craddick said his conversations were completely legal and part of a normal exchange of political updates.

A Travis County grand jury is looking into whether TRMPAC worked to influence the speaker's race by contributing something of value to Mr. Craddick, which would be a misdemeanor. The same grand jury also is examining whether TRMPAC illegally used corporate donations to help GOP House candidates in 2002.

TRMPAC officials have denied wrongdoing.

The phone records recently emerged from filings in a lawsuit brought by four defeated Democratic candidates who have raised allegations of election impropriety similar to what the grand jury is reviewing. Those court filings already have shown that TRMPAC worked with Mr. Craddick to raise at least $200,000 in campaign contributions and distribute the money to office-seekers who, if they won House seats, would support Mr. Craddick in the speaker's race.

The new phone records show that Mr. Craddick also communicated with TRMPAC at least several times a week leading up to and following the 2002 general election _ in which Republicans took control of the House for the first time in a century. Of the 92 total phone calls, 32 occurred in the six weeks before the election.

'Not any crime'

Roy Minton, a lawyer for Mr. Craddick, said his client spoke frequently with TRMPAC political consultant Kevin Brannon to exchange political news. "He said, 'I don't know how many times I called him, but I called him all the time,' " Mr. Minton said on behalf of Mr. Craddick. " 'During that period of time, we were checking on races all the time to see how they were going.' "

Tom Craddick ... communcations with PAC raise questions.

Mr. Minton said there was nothing nefarious about a speaker candidate wanting to help fellow Republicans get elected. "There's not any crime involved in any of that. That concept is ridiculous," he said.

Earlier, Mr. Minton had maintained that his grandkids knew more about TRMPAC than Mr. Craddick did, and he said that's still true.

"I don't know of anything that indicates that he [Mr. Craddick] was running TRMPAC or had anything to do with what TRMPAC was doing," Mr. Minton said.

"If the question was whether he was more interested in whether or not more Republicans were going to be elected than Democrats ... well, of course he was. There's nothing wrong with that," he said.

Watchdog response

Craig McDonald, executive director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, when told of the 92 phone calls _ which lasted a total of 245 minutes _ said that it points to Mr. Craddick being "intimately involved in the operation."

"The speaker was clearly involved in its fund raising and its funds distribution to candidates. And the more details surface, the deeper Craddick's involvement becomes," said Mr. McDonald.

"He's prohibited from using TRMPAC as a surrogate speaker's PAC. And the more the evidence shows that he did that, the deeper his legal jeopardy," Mr. McDonald said.

Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint in March 2003 with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle over $600,000 in corporate contributions that TRMPAC used to support candidates in 23 House races targeted for GOP takeover. The ensuing investigation was later broadened to look at whether TRMPAC unduly influenced the speaker's race.

After the Republicans claimed control of the Texas House for the first time in a century, Mr. Craddick claimed he had the votes to take the speaker's position in November 2002, culminating a 34-year legislative career.

TRMPAC's interest in the speaker's race began in September 2001 when Mr. Brannon, the consultant, began interviewing candidates in contested Republican primaries. His job, according to court depositions, was to assess the candidates and recommend whom TRMPAC should support in the March 2002 primary.

In at least seven instances, Mr. Brannon noted whether Mr. Craddick favored particular candidates or whether they would support Mr. Craddick in the speaker's race, according to handwritten notes provided to The Dallas Morning News.

On Nov. 5, 2001, Mr. Brannon wrote that candidate Bryan Hughes is "going to Austin today _ will meet with Tom Craddick."

Mr. Hughes, of Mineola, was subsequently backed by TRMPAC and went on to win in the November general election.

Reached Tuesday, Mr. Hughes said that he remembers meeting and working with Mr. Brannon but that he had pledged support to Mr. Craddick before the November 2001 meeting. He said he did not know whether his support of Mr. Craddick was material to winning TRMPAC's endorsement. He said he was asked many questions on a variety of subjects.

Mr. Brannon did not return phone calls, but Terry Scarborough, an attorney representing TRMPAC, said the political consultant submitted 900 pages of notes on candidate evaluations.

Mr. Scarborough said TRMPAC was devoted to getting Republicans elected to the House and was on the lookout for the strongest candidate in each of the 23 targeted races.

"We were interested in supporting those candidates we thought could win elections," he said.

The next objective was to get a Republican elected as House speaker, but TRMPAC did not endorse a specific candidate in any of its written materials, he said.

The Story So Far

November 2001: TRMPAC starts collecting money and targeting 23 swing districts in the Texas House. TRMPAC is the brainchild of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a close friend of Mr. Craddick. The Midland Republican is opposed in his pursuit of the speaker's post by three other Republicans and incumbent Democrat Pete Laney. Mr. Craddick hopes a Republican majority will support him over the others.

December 2001-January 2002: TRMPAC political consultant Kevin Brannon interviews GOP candidates in selected legislative races to see whom the group should support in the Republican primary. His handwritten notes indicate which candidates Mr. Craddick likes and which are likely to support Mr. Craddick.

July 2002: Mr. Craddick holds a joint fund-raiser with TRMPAC.

September 2002: TRMPAC collects $25,000 from Union Pacific for 11 selected GOP candidates. The checks are sent to Mr. Craddick to distribute.

October 2002: TRMPAC writes $152,000 checks to 14 GOP candidates and sends the checks to Mr. Craddick to distribute.

Nov. 5, 2002: Republicans win 88 House seats in the election. Two days later, Mr. Craddick announces he has the votes to become the next speaker.

Sept. 20-Jan. 3, 2003: Phone records later show 92 phone calls between Mr. Brannon and Mr. Craddick in late fall.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research