Thursday, September 23, 2004

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick personally received a corporate donation in 2002 for Texans for a Republican Majority that is the subject of an indictment returned this week by a Travis County grand jury.

Craddick took donation for TRMPAC

To have violated a campaign law, he would have had to have known the check was illegal

By R.G. RATCLIFFE, Houston Chronicle
Sept. 23, 2004

AUSTIN - Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick personally received a corporate donation in 2002 for Texans for a Republican Majority that is the subject of an indictment returned this week by a Travis County grand jury.

A lawyer for Mariner Health Care Inc. confirmed Wednesday that company CEO Chris Winkle gave Craddick a $100,000 check for TRMPAC in October 2002 on behalf of The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care Corp. of Boston.

Craddick said he did nothing wrong in accepting the check for TRMPAC.

"I don't even know if I looked at it, to be truthful," Craddick said at a Midland news conference.

The grand jury indicted the alliance Tuesday on a third-degree felony count of making an illegal corporate donation in a Texas political campaign. The panel also indicted TRMPAC Executive Director John Colyandro on a felony charge of accepting an illegal donation from the alliance.

TRMPAC was founded by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, in announcing the indictments Tuesday, said the investigation is continuing and indicated that part of the focus is on Craddick's campaign to become speaker in 2002.

Earlier this year, it became known that Craddick received $152,000 in checks from TRMPAC for 14 Republican House candidates and had his office distribute them. At the time, Craddick was a candidate for speaker.

In the Mariner incident, Craddick received corporate money on behalf of TRMPAC. To have violated the state's ban on corporate money in campaigns, Craddick would have had to have known he was taking banned money.

Meeting takes place

Van Hilley, a San Antonio criminal defense lawyer representing Mariner Health Care Inc., said Winkle met with Craddick in October 2002 in Houston. He said Winkle had been asked to deliver a check to Craddick from the nursing-home alliance to have delivered to TRMPAC.

"We simply wanted to talk to the speaker about tort reform. He wasn't the speaker at the time, but everybody thought he was going to be speaker," Hilley said.

Hilley said someone with the alliance knew Winkle was meeting with Craddick and asked Winkle to deliver the check.

"It was actually set up through some of the political consultants here in the state that the alliance had and that we had. They sort of made the connection for us," Hilley said. "I'm not sure our client ever actually saw the check. It was in an envelope."

Hilley said Winkle discussed his meeting with Craddick in a conversation with Travis County prosecutors last week.

Contribution channels

Bill Miller of Hillco Partners confirmed that Mariner lobbyist Neal T. "Buddy" Jones set up the meeting between Winkle and Craddick. Miller said any questions about the donation would have to be directed to Mariner or the alliance.

Joel Weiden, a spokesman for the alliance, said one of the 14 group members asked that the donation be made. He declined to name the business that wanted to make the contribution to TRMPAC.

The alliance is an umbrella nonprofit corporation for some of the nation's largest nursing-home companies. The alliance maintains there was nothing illegal about its contributions to TRMPAC.

Craddick, at a news conference covered by the Midland Reporter-Telegram, said he had not gone to Houston to raise money for TRMPAC.

"I wasn't down there collecting anything. I was just down there visiting with these people on their issues and election issues, and they gave it to me," Craddick said. "We have a lot of people ask us where they can contribute that would help the Republicans get control, and TRMPAC was the group."

TRMPAC financing helped Republicans take control of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction.

Craddick said he was not involved in running TRMPAC.

"I had no idea what they were doing," Craddick said.

Besides Colyandro, the grand jury also indicted Jim Ellis, director of DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority; and Warren RoBold, a fund-raiser for ARMPAC and TRMPAC. Seven corporations were indicted along with the alliance.

Colyandro booked

Wednesday, Colyandro turned himself in to authorities to be fingerprinted and booked. He was released on a personal recognizance bond.

His attorney, Joe Turner, said Colyandro talked with lawyers and campaign finance experts before helping to establish Texans for a Republican Majority and that he did not intend to break any laws.

Texas law prohibits corporate or labor-union money from being used in candidate campaigns.

Craddick's attorney, Roy Minton of Austin, said it is difficult to believe a corporation could know whether its money was going to legal administrative expenses or illegal campaign expenses.

He said Craddick also would have had no way of knowing how TRMPAC was spending the money.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with a politician taking a check made out to a PAC and giving it to the PAC," Minton said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.