DeLay says he'll stay out of fight over railroad lineThe consortium seeking to build it gave his PAC over $50,000
By CLAY ROBISON, Houston Chronicle
July 22, 2004,
AUSTIN - U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay hasn't publicly taken sides in a simmering controversy over the construction of a hazardous-cargo rail line through his Houston-area district.
But he has political ties to the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co., which is part of a consortium seeking to build and operate the proposed 12.8-mile San Jacinto Rail Line, which would run from the Bayport Industrial District on the Houston Ship Channel to the Clear Lake area.
In 2002, Burlington Northern gave $26,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee founded by DeLay, R-Sugar Land. Travis County prosecutors are investigating whether those contributions and other corporate donations were illegally used to influence Texas legislative races that year.
Burlington Northern contributed an additional $25,000 to the PAC in November 2003, after the investigation by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, began.
DeLay's attorney in a separate, congressional ethics inquiry is Ed Bethune, a partner in the Bracewell & Patterson law firm, which has lobbied for the railroad company in Washington. Bracewell & Patterson was paid $720,000 by Burlington Northern from 2001 through 2003, congressional records show.
DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said Wednesday the congressman remains neutral in the rail-line fight and isn't being influenced by his ties to Burlington Northern. He said DeLay hopes the opposing sides can work out their differences.
"We have no plans at this point to insert ourselves into the process," Grella said.
Bethune, a former congressman from Arkansas who also represented DeLay in a previous, unsuccessful lawsuit brought by Democrats in 2000, didn't return a telephone call Wednesday from the Houston Chronicle. Bethune was listed as a lobbyist on the Burlington Northern account in Bracewell & Patterson's disclosure filings for 2001-03, but Burlington Northern spokesman Richard Russack said Bethune didn't personally lobby for the company.
Republicans insist there was no wrongdoing in the financing of GOP legislative races, which led to the first Republican takeover of the Texas House in modern times. DeLay also denies related ethics violations alleged in a complaint filed in the U.S. House by lame-duck Democratic congressman Chris Bell of Houston.
Texas law bans the use of corporate and labor union money in political campaigns except to pay a political action committee's administrative expenses.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who represents the only other district the proposed San Jacinto Rail route runs through, has fought the proposal.
Burlington Northern and four chemical company partners say the new line is needed because the Union Pacific Railroad is the only railroad serving the Bayport area.
One of the other partners, Lyondell Chemical Co., has given DeLay $16,000 during the current election cycle, through company officers and employees.
Opponents say the line, which won federal regulatory approval last year but has been delayed by a lawsuit over the right-of-way brought by the city of Houston, would bring tons of toxic chemicals within a half-mile of suburban homes each week.
"DeLay seems to be railroading his constituents, to say the least," said Cris Feldman, an Austin attorney who represents several former Democratic legislators in a civil lawsuit against Texans for a Republican Majority officials over the 2002 campaign financing allegations.
According to documents obtained by the Chronicle, Burlington Northern sent a $25,000 check to the Texans for a Republican Majority's Washington office March 20, 2002, and a $1,000 check to its Austin office Sept. 26, 2002.
The latter check, sent about six weeks before the 2002 general election, was for "party-building in state House races," according to an accompanying letter.
The PAC reported an additional $25,000 contribution from Burlington Northern on Nov. 18, 2003, in a report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. Russack, the railroad company spokesman, confirmed the 2002 contributions but said he knew nothing about a donation in 2003.
Bell called Bethune the "chief lobbyist" for Burlington Northern.
In a letter to the U.S. House committee with jurisdiction over his ethics complaint, Bell said Bethune may have a potential conflict of interest because Burlington Northern could be implicated in the criminal investigation in Austin. Bell's ethics complaint against DeLay includes the PAC allegations. It also accuses DeLay of providing legislative favors in exchange for donations from Westar Energy Corp. and of misusing his office to force the Texas Legislature to redraw congressional district lines last year to favor Republican candidates.