Tuesday, February 8, 2005

By the end of this month, if all goes as planned, this famously liberal city will play host to the first of what could be several courtroom battles forcing big-name Republicans to defend the way they raised and spent campaign cash in Texas in 2002.

Trials looming over corporate contributions

Outcome is sure to be felt nationally

Lisa Sandberg, San Antonio Express-News
Feb. 8, 2005

AUSTIN--By the end of this month, if all goes as planned, this famously liberal city will play host to the first of what could be several courtroom battles forcing big-name Republicans to defend the way they raised and spent campaign cash in Texas in 2002.

The outcome is sure to be felt nationally, providing political ammunition to either friends or enemies of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Sugar Land, because his associates are being brought to trial.

Closer to home, the cases are certain to intensify the debate over how or whether Texas should continue to ban corporate money from political campaigns, and how its current law should be interpreted.

Observers said they expect lawmakers to file competing bills this session seeking to both strengthen and overturn Texas' campaign finance laws, all in the name of championing free and fair elections.

Lawyers on one side, including Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, say they are trying to enforce the state's 100-year-old campaign finance law.

Lawyers on the other side want to see the law overturned.

Three Republicans face criminal charges, and two of them face a lawsuit along with another GOP operative.

Their lawyers say the state law restricting corporate money is both unconstitutionally vague and broad, curbing the First Amendment rights of corporate employees to express political opinions.

Why limit corporate money, they ask, when the state sets no limit on political contributions from rich individuals?

"I don't think corporate money is inherently more evil than individual money," said J.D. Pauerstein, a San Antonio attorney representing Jim Ellis, one of the Republican defendants in the criminal case.

Earle is responsible for prosecuting three DeLay associates indicted last September in Austin on felony campaign finance charges.

The less-publicized civil suit, expected to begin on Feb. 28, was brought by five Democrats who lost House races in 2002, and is being pushed by three Austin lawyers who agree with Earle that Texas' campaign finance law rightly protects the political process from the amassed influence of corporate power.

They say the Republicans being targeted knowingly circumvented that law and in doing so, helped their party capture control of the Texas Legislature in 2002 for the first time since Reconstruction.

"This is about a group of people who thought they were above the law," said Cris Feldman, one of the lawyers representing the five Democrats in a lawsuit against Ellis, John Colyandro and Bill Ceverha, treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority, the group at the center of Earle's investigation.

Ceverha has not been charged with a crime. The suit claims the three distributed corporate money to the plaintiffs' victorious opponents.

The upcoming court battles likely will intensify the state debate over campaign finance reform, even as they settle the question of whether individual Republicans acted improperly when they collected and distributed more than $600,000 in corporate money in Texas in 2002.

Warren RoBold, a Washington consultant and fund-raiser, and Colyandro, former executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority, are charged with multiple counts of unlawfully accepting and distributing corporate political contributions.

Colyandro also was charged with money laundering, along with Ellis, who heads Americans for a Republican Majority, DeLay's national fund-raising committee. Prosecutors say the men laundered $190,000 by sending the money out of state and then back to the campaigns of Texas candidates.

Charges against three of eight corporations indicted the same day as Colyandro, RoBold and Ellis were recently dismissed in exchange for the companies' agreement to assist prosecutors in their probe.

If Earle fails, "our entire election system will be (sold) to the highest bidder," said Craig McDonald, who heads Texans for Public Justice, a liberal campaign watchdog group.

Texas law forbids corporations from directly funding campaigns but has been amended in recent years to allow corporate dollars to fund a political committee's administrative expenses.

The Republicans violated the provision, prosecutors charge, by paying for consultants, phone banks, pollsters and the like expenses they insist are not administrative overhead.

Lawyers for the Republicans say the courts will have to determine the definition of "campaign contributions."

The legal battles already are being felt in the political arena, said lead prosecutor Greg Cox. Stars Over Texas, a Republican political action committee, returned its corporate contributions following the indictments.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, remain circumspect when asked if their investigation will net bigger fish like DeLay or GOP House Speaker Tom Craddick. "Anyone who has committed a crime is a target," Cox said, repeating the words of his boss.