Tuesday, September 28, 2004

In a new assault on corporate spending in politics, former Texas attorney general candidate Kirk Watson on Monday sued an out-of-state group to unearth the identity of the corporations he said secretly financed illegal campaign ads.

In lawsuit, Kirk Watson seeks ID of secret donors

Former attorney general candidate calls ads by LEAA of Virginia illegal.

By Laylan Copelin, Austin American Statseman
Tuesday, September 28, 2004

In a new assault on corporate spending in politics, former Texas attorney general candidate Kirk Watson on Monday sued an out-of-state group to unearth the identity of the corporations he said secretly financed illegal campaign ads.

Watson and East Texas legislative candidate Mike Head, both Democrats, filed the lawsuit in Travis County district court against the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, based in Falls Church, Va.; its undisclosed corporate donors; "John Doe conspirators" who assisted in the ad campaigns; and John Colyandro, the former executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority, who also advised Watson's opponent, Greg Abbott, during the 2002 elections.

The lawsuit, opening another front in the escalating campaign finance controversy, says corporate-financed advertising tainted the 2002 elections and says that the alliance violated Texas law by not disclosing its donors. State law generally prohibits corporate or labor money from being spent on political expenditures.

A lawyer for the pro-gun, pro-police group, Richard Gardiner, said Monday that the ads did not violate Texas law because they did not advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. It's the same First Amendment defense offered by the Texas Association of Business, which, like the law enforcement group, is being investigated on the question of whether corporate money was illegally spent on political ads.

The alliance spent an estimated $1.5 million on a TV commercial aired around the state in the final days of the 2002 campaign. The commercial attacked Watson as a personal injury trial lawyer who "made millions suing doctors, hospitals and small businesses."

Watson served as Austin mayor from 1997 to 2001.

Abbott, a Republican and the eventual winner in 2002, was praised in the spot for believing in "common-sense lawsuit reform."

The law enforcement group, according to Colyandro's deposition in another lawsuit, also distributed some of the mail pieces created by the Texas Association of Business. The state's largest business group spent $1.9 million in money from undisclosed corporate sources to mail information to voters in several legislative races around the state.

The postcard about Head, a criminal defense lawyer, states that he is "on the side of convicted baby killers and murderers" and questions whether such lawyers should be writing state laws.

The lawsuit follows in the wake of last week's 32 criminal indictments against Colyandro, two other lieutenants of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and eight corporations accused of making or accepting illegal donations during the 2002 elections.

It's also another round in a growing volley of post-indictment shots that Democrats are taking at Republicans as the grand jury investigation continues into corporate donors and politicians, includingstate House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

Craddick accepted a $100,000 corporate check on behalf of Texans for a Republican Majority, and the group directed $152,000 of its noncorporate donations through Craddick's office to several candidates who later supported him in his bid to be speaker. State law forbids outsiders from trying to influence a speaker election.

Most state officials refuse to comment on the investigation, citing the sensitivity so close to the Nov. 2 election, but one prominent Republican House member said, "Everyone is sitting on pins and needles to see what happens next."

Travis County legislative candidates Mark Strama and Kelly White, both Democrats, have called on their opponents, Reps. Jack Stick and Todd Baxter, to return their donations from Texans for Republican Majority, which the indictments alleged were laundered through the Republican National Committee to look like legal contributions from individuals. Stick and Baxter, both Republicans, said that they did nothing wrong and that the donations were legal. Several Democratic candidates around the state are making similar demands of Republicans who received money two years ago from Texans for a Republican Majority.

Colyandro and Jim Ellis, another close associate of DeLay's, were indicted on felony money-laundering charges, accusing them of using the national committee to convert $190,000 in illegal corporate donations into $190,000 in noncorporate contributions for seven House candidates. Baxter and Stick each received $35,000 from that transaction.

Neither Stick nor Baxter has been accused of wrongdoing by investigators.

On Monday, Strama criticized Stick for making a pitch last week at the Hobby State Office Building for campaign help from a group of insurance lobbyists and state employees who are working on tougher laws to curb insurance fraud. Stick later said he considered it a "humorous" reference and promised not to accept money from any of the groups represented at the meeting.

Strama said the public is tired of lawmakers being beholden to large political donors.

"It has direct consequences on people's lives," Strama said. "Our lawmakers should be working to protect the public interest when it comes to insurance issues, not looking for ways to raise campaign contributions."

Stick complained that Strama _ a high-tech executive who grew up in Houston, worked in Austin in the early 1990s and left the state after 1995 _ just returned to the state capital last year to run against him.

"I welcome my opponent to the debate on ethics reform just as I welcome him to Texas," Stick said. He added that he will respond to Strama's ethics proposal with one of his own.

The lawsuit by Watson and Head, filed by Austin lawyers Buck Wood and Doug Ray, could potentially lift the veil on the activities of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America.

Created 13 years ago, the alliance was largely financed by the National Rifle Association to counter law enforcement groups that supported gun control laws. Since 2002, the alliance has raised eyebrows by becoming involved in campaigns in Texas, Mississippi, Kansas and Pennsylvania.

An unidentified benefactor or benefactors funneled $4.5 million through the alliance in 2002, according to tax records, paying for attack ads in several states. The TV blitzes rarely reflected the alliance's priorities, such as arming airline pilots and allowing off-duty and retired police officers to carry concealed guns. Travis County prosecutors hypothesize that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with ties to the Texas Association of Business, is the alliance's mystery benefactor.

According to the lawsuit, the large infusion of corporate cash corrupts democracy.

"Texas has been at the forefront of prohibiting the hijacking of elections by large corporate interests," the lawsuit said. "Defendants, however, have mounted a determined assault on the state's longstanding efforts to insure the integrity of its elections."