Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A Houston legislator who chairs the committee that sets bills for House debate once promised a gambling promoter that she would get fellow lawmakers to listen to his pitch for a legalized video lottery if he would contribute money to a Republican effort to win control of the Texas House.

Pledge to gambling promoter unveiled

Rep. Woolley's fund-raising pitch promised him an Austin hearing on video

By R.G. RATCLIFFE, Houston Chronicle
April 13, 2005

AUSTIN - A Houston legislator who chairs the committee that sets bills for House debate once promised a gambling promoter that she would get fellow lawmakers to listen to his pitch for a legalized video lottery if he would contribute money to a Republican effort to win control of the Texas House.

A lawyer for state Rep. Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, said her promise was nothing more than politics as usual and violated no state laws, but a public interest advocate said it "smells of influence peddling."

The new revelations are contained in evidence in a recent civil lawsuit involving Texans for a Republican Majority. They also surface as a House committee prepares to start hearing testimony today on whether video lotteries, VLTs, in Texas should be legalized at horse-racing tracks. No action is expected.

House Speaker Tom Craddick last week said he believes there will be a "big push" to legalize video lotteries as the Legislature looks for ways to finance the state's budget. The state has predicted it could earn $1.5 billion a year from video lottery terminals, also known as video slot machines.

But the issue was almost unheard of in 2002 as Woolley raised money for Texans for a Republican Majority, TRMPAC. Woolley is chairwoman of the House Calendars Committee, which controls when the House debates specific bills.

Her testimony in a deposition in a lawsuit brought by losing Democratic House candidates against TRMPAC treasurer Bill Ceverha shows she did not understand what VLTs were when she first discussed them with Charles Hurwitz, head of Maxxam Inc., owner of the Sam Houston Race Park.

'Can ask people to listen'

But her testimony also showed that as she tried to raise money from Hurwitz for TRMPAC, she told him she could "promise" to help get other legislators to listen to his plug for video lottery if he would contribute to TRMPAC.

In handwritten notes of her meeting with Hurwitz, Woolley wrote: "promise ‹ ear to listen, not votes."

When asked about that in her deposition, Woolley said she told the people in Hurwitz's office, "I can ask people to listen to you and let you explain what it is Mr. Hurwitz wants. I can't promise you any votes."

She testified that she could "encourage" other members to meet with Hurwitz's representatives but "I couldn't encourage anybody to vote for it."

Woolley said Hurwitz told her he wanted to donate to TRMPAC through the corporation. Woolley testified she told Hurwitz lobbyist Elton Bomer to contact TRMPAC Executive Director John Colyandro about whether a corporate contribution would be legal.

Woolley testified at first that Bomer was in the meeting with Hurwitz but then changed her testimony to say she talked to Bomer later.

On Tuesday, Bomer said he was not in the meeting. He said he never talked to Hurwitz or Woolley about the $5,000 donation that Maxxam made to TRMPAC.

"I haven't talked to her on VLTs at all," Bomer said.

Colyandro, in a letter to Maxxam general counsel Kent Friedman, said a corporate donation would be legal and would not have to be revealed under state law. Friedman sent in the donation with a letter saying, "Its use should, of course, be limited to those purposes permitted under Texas campaign contribution laws and rules."

Friedman could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The lawsuit accuses TRMPAC of illegally using corporate contributions to influence House elections. Colyandro and two other TRMPAC officials have been indicted on criminal charges related to the case.

GOP set sights on House

TRMPAC was set up by Craddick and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, to win a GOP majority in the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction.

In one handwritten note, Woolley expressed the benefits Republican legislators could get from winning such a majority from the Democrats. "More than likely we will have a large enough Republican majority in the Texas House ‹ more leadership positions open to R's," Woolley wrote.

In 2002, Woolley was vice chairwoman of the House pensions committee. But after helping win the GOP majority and electing Craddick as speaker, Woolley was given chairmanship of the Calendars Committee.

Woolley referred all questions about TRMPAC to her lawyer, Rusty Hardin, of Houston.

Hardin said there was nothing fundamentally wrong with Woolley's talks with Hurwitz. He said it is the same as a politician telling voters that if they give the party support, their position will be heard on issues.

" 'If you support us, I assure you I will always listen to what you have to say and I will ask other people to listen. But I am not going to promise you any votes, nor am I going to encourage others to do so,' " Hardin said. "How in the world, if you put it in that context, could it be wrong?"

Trying to get access

Hardin said there was no promise on Woolley's part of a specific official act in exchange for the Maxxam contribution that would violate state law. Hardin said people who donate time or money to political campaigns just want politicians to listen to them.

"There's no suggestion that if you give money you will get anything other than an open door," Hardin said.

But Craig McDonald, director of the advocacy organization Texans for Public Justice, said the difference is Woolley is "soliciting money" while discussing a legislative topic. He said multiple documents show the people associated with TRMPAC at least loosely linked legislation in Texas to political donations.

"It smells of influence peddling, and it smells of selling special access to the legislative process," McDonald said.