Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Republican lawmaker says Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff last year urged him to sign a pledge card for Speaker Tom Craddick, a possible violation of a state law designed to keep people outside the House of Representatives from influencing a speaker's election.

GOP lawmaker: Governor's aide urged pledge for House speaker

Investigation of Perry's former aide might complicate legislation.

By Laylan Copelin, Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, April 14, 2005

A Republican lawmaker says Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff last year urged him to sign a pledge card for Speaker Tom Craddick, a possible violation of a state law designed to keep people outside the House of Representatives from influencing a speaker's election.

Prosecutors have been looking at the February 2004 meeting between then-Chief of Staff Mike Toomey and Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, for months. They are also looking at Toomey's role during the 2002 elections, when he was still a lobbyist, helping orchestrate political attack ads by anonymous corporations, including some of his clients.

Toomey, who has returned to lobbying after serving as Perry's chief of staff for nearly two years, did not return phone calls Wednesday.

Perry spokesman Robert Black denied that Toomey asked Merritt, a maverick Republican close to former Democratic Speaker Pete Laney, to pledge his support to Craddick as he sought a second term as speaker.

"That's silliness," Black said. "It didn't happen."

Merritt said he asked Toomey for the governor's endorsement in his House re-election primary last March after Perry had campaigned against him in a special Senate election in East Texas a month earlier.

More important, Merritt said, Toomey agreed that Americans for Job Security ‹ an out-of-state organization that used corporate money in radio attack ads in Merritt's Senate race ‹ would not repeat them in his re-election bid to the House.

A Perry consultant, Dave Carney, heads up Americans for Job Security, which paid for radio ads that Merritt said mischaracterized his stance on taxes.

Merritt said he also agreed to endorse Perry's choice for the East Texas state Senate seat: Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.
Black said it didn't happen that way: "Merritt just came hat in hand and asked for our endorsement, and he got it."

Black denied that Toomey demanded anything in return for the governor's endorsement.

Ongoing inquiry

For more than two years, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has been investigating a widening circle of individuals and groups that used corporate money to hire political consultants, fund-raisers and phone banks as well as mailing attack pieces to Texas voters, mostly during the 2002 House elections.

State law prohibits the use of corporate money for campaign expenses.

In addition to Carney's group, prosecutors are investigating the Texas Association of Business, Law Enforcement Alliance of America and Texans for a Republican Majority on accusations that they misused corporate money in campaigns. It has been known for more than a year that Toomey helped direct the business association's mail campaign against Democrats.

Prosecutors also are investigating whether Craddick's race for speaker benefited when outside groups routed campaign donations through his Midland office on the way to Republican candidates who eventually voted for Craddick.

The speaker has denied any wrongdoing.

The so-called speaker's statute is designed to keep outside groups and members of the executive and judicial branches from getting involved in an election that is supposed to involve only the House's 150 members. Violating the law is a misdemeanor.

It is that statute that might come into play in the Toomey-Merritt meeting.

Merritt said Nancy Fisher, Craddick's chief of staff, gave him the pledge card in a meeting with her earlier the same day.

When he later met with Toomey, Merritt said the governor's chief of staff urged him to sign the card. Merritt said he signed it after the Toomey meeting and slipped it under Fisher's door.

Fisher, through a spokeswoman, said she could not remember the meeting.

Pending legislation

Merritt's experiences on the receiving end of anonymous attack ads has drawn attention at the Capitol in recent days as lawmakers weigh a proposal to ban such ads 60 days before an election.

House Bill 1348, among other things, would bar the so-called issue ads used by the Texas Association of Business and clarify existing law by preventing a political action committee from spending corporate money on consultants, fund-raisers and phone banks. It does not address the speaker's statute.

Ninety-three House members ‹ all 63 Democrats and 30 Republicans ‹ have signed on as co-authors. Only 76 votes are necessary to pass it.

Still, as the bill gets its first public hearing today, there is concern that the legislation might not survive a gantlet of elected officials from the House to the governor's office, who either directed or benefited from corporate money in Texas elections.

Reps. Mary Denny, R-Aubrey, and Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, got help in 2002 from the Texas Association of Business and Texans for a Republican Majority. Denny chairs the Elections Committee, and Hughes leads the campaign finance subcommittee where House Bill 1348 is lodged.

Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, served on the advisory board of Texans for a Republican Majority. Woolley leads the House Calendars Committee, which schedules bills for floor votes.

All three lawmakers, plus Craddick, have not signed on to support the bill. The three members said they have been too busy to make a decision on the bill, and Craddick has said he will stay neutral.

The authors, Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, and Todd Smith, R-Euless, aren't ready to point fingers, although the legislative clock is running out on the bill.

"What I call the invisible hand of government can kill it and leave no fingerprints," Eiland said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the Senate is waiting on the House to act: "If it comes over here, we're passing it out."

That would leave Perry, with his ties to Toomey.

The governor has taken no position on restricting corporate and union money in elections.

"There needs to be as much disclosure as possible," Black said. "When you start limiting the ability of people to express themselves, you start down the slippery slope of violating the First Amendment.

"With that said, he will consider it if it reaches his desk."