Saturday, September 25, 2004

The day after indictments were issued over corporate contributions this week, the House speaker's political committee sent out letters saying it was returning more than $100,000 in business donations.

Stars Over Texas PAC returns business donations

Action follows indictments over corporate contributions

By CHRISTY HOPPE / Dallas Morning News
September 25, 2004

AUSTIN – The day after indictments were issued over corporate contributions this week, the House speaker's political committee sent out letters saying it was returning more than $100,000 in business donations.

The action is the first ripple effect from 32 indictments of eight corporations and three fund-raisers connected to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Another upshot: Campaigns for People said it is launching television ads next week that urge citizens to get behind a "Clean Up Texas Politics" push to rewrite campaign laws.

House Speaker Tom Craddick's political action committee, Stars Over Texas, announced its decision to turn back corporate money in a letter from state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, who serves as treasurer. He told corporate contributors that Tuesday's indictments "did not specify what acts constituted the illegal contribution or receipt of corporate funds."

Mr. Keel said he believed the contributions were legal. "Nevertheless, I have made a policy decision to return all corporate contributions and accept none at all until state courts have ruled so as to identify with precision and authority what activities are protected from criminal allegation," he stated.

On Friday, Mr. Keel said that the Stars Over Texas PAC "was beyond reproach" in its handling of corporate contributions and "did everything by the book" when it segregated those contributions and earmarked them only for administrative costs.

"Until we get some sort of court ruling that gives us a definitive protection from any allegations of impropriety, I think the safe route to go is simply to return all those contributions," he said.

State law prohibits using corporate and union contributions for political purposes.

However, the law does allow for corporate donations to pay for the administrative overhead costs of running political committees.

In the indictments, John Colyandro, executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee, is accused of illegally using more than $200,000 in corporate donations in the 2002 House races.

Mr. Colyandro has defended using corporate funds to pay for phone banks, political consultants, fund raising and polls, saying the efforts did not help an individual candidate but were used for an overall Republican cause.

In its literature, TRMPAC acknowledged that it was pushing the boundaries of conventional politics. "Unlike other organizations, your corporate contribution to TRMPAC will be put to productive use," its brochure stated. "Rather than just paying for overhead, your support will fund a series of productive and innovative activities designed to increase our level or engagement in the political arena."

Warren RoBold, who raised the corporate money for TRMPAC and its big sister, Americans for a Republican Majority, also was indicted. Both political committees were started by Mr. DeLay.

The third man indicted, James Ellis, was the executive director of ARMPAC and an aide to Mr. DeLay. He has been charged with money laundering.

All three deny wrongdoing.

During the 2002 campaign cycle, TRMPAC worked with now-House Speaker Tom Craddick, who helped it raise money.

Last year, Mr. Craddick began Stars Over Texas to raise donations intended for incumbent Republican House members who are helpful to his leadership. His daughter, Christi Craddick, has been a key fund-raiser, and the original treasurer was Bill Ceverha, who also is TRMPAC treasurer.

Two months ago, Stars Over Texas switched treasurers, naming Mr. Keel instead, so that a current House member would have oversight.

Campaign watchdog groups applauded the move by Stars Over Texas to return the corporate donations, which had reached $108,900 – $100,000 of which came from AT&T – as of the last report in early August. At the time, the group had about $33,000 from individual donors, but it has held numerous fund-raisers since the last reporting period.

"I'm glad they're giving it back," said Fred Lewis, director of Campaigns for People. "It would have been prudent to have done this earlier. But it's certainly prudent now."