Friday, May 27, 2005

judge ruled Thursday that the treasurer of a political committee founded by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay violated state campaign-finance laws by not reporting more than $500,000 in corporate money used to influence Texas House elections.

DeLay PAC'S Treasurer Broke Law, Judge Rules

Congressman's lawyer downplays decision -- foes call for wider probe by House ethics panel

May 27, 2005

AUSTIN - A judge ruled Thursday that the treasurer of a political committee founded by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay violated state campaign-finance laws by not reporting more than $500,000 in corporate money used to influence Texas House elections.

Though state District Judge Joe Hart did not specifically rule on whether the money was raised and spent illegally, he declared it was all campaign money. Texas law bans the use of corporate or labor-union money to influence votes in state races.

Hart's ruling against Bill Ceverha immediately prompted calls from DeLay opponents - including former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston, and advocacy groups in Austin and Washington - for an expanded investigation into DeLay 's activities by the U.S. House Ethics Committee.

But Bobby Burchfield, DeLay 's attorney in Washington, dismissed the ruling as occurring in a civil lawsuit in which DeLay was not a party.

"The case really has nothing to do with Tom DeLay ; he is not even mentioned in the decision," Burchfield said. "It is really kind of an inside campaign-finance decision on issues that had never been decided before."

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by five losing Democratic candidates against the treasurer of a DeLay -founded political committee: Texans for a Republican Majority. They claimed TRMPAC illegally used corporate money to defeat them.

Hart's opinion, which defense attorneys said they will appeal, is the first judicial ruling that indicates TRMPAC's activities were illegal.

Key to GOP success

TRMPAC was crucial to a Republican effort to finance the takeover of the Texas House in the 2002 elections and the election of Rep. Tom Craddick, of Midland, as speaker. That was pivotal to DeLay 's plan to push congressional redistricting through the Legislature in 2003 to give the GOP a majority in the state's U.S. House delegation.

Hart ruled in the lawsuit that TRMPAC raised $532,333 in corporate money to influence the legislative elections and was required to report the money to the Texas Ethics Commission.

TRMPAC did not report the corporate money or expenditures to the Texas Ethics Commission. However, the money was revealed in reports to the Internal Revenue Service filed under federal law.

Texas law prohibits corporate or labor union money from being used by political committees for anything other than administrative expenses.

"I find that the contributions were used in connection with a campaign for elective office. Therefore, they were political contributions or campaign contributions within the meaning of ... the Election Code," Hart ruled.

Hart said TRMPAC defined administrative expenses overly broadly in using corporate money. He said all of TRMPAC's expenditures fit the Texas legal definition of political spending.

Hart, a Democrat, is a visiting judge chosen to try the case by the Republican lawyers for TRMPAC and lawyers for the plaintiffs because of a history of judicial fairness. Hart awarded the five Democratic plaintiffs $196,000 plus attorneys fees.

Terry Scarborough, the attorney representing Ceverha, said he will ask Hart to allow him to appeal the case immediately. Ceverha's case is linked to other defendants in such a way that an appeal could be delayed for more than a year if Hart did not sever the case.

"We feel strongly this decision is wrong," Scarborough said. "Our client was exercising his constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association. These are the most fundamental constitutional rights that we, as citizens, enjoy and cherish."

Cris Feldman, one of the lawyers for the Democratic plaintiffs, said more information likely will come out about illegal campaign activities as lawsuits proceed against other TRMPAC defendants and the Texas Association of Business.

"This was an important first step in rooting out the abuse and corruption in the 2002 state elections," Feldman said.

Three of DeLay 's political associates have been indicted by a Travis County grand jury on charges relating to how the money was raised or transferred to candidates. The three - former TRMPAC Executive Director John Colyandro, fund-raiser Warren RoBold and Jim Ellis, the executive director of DeLay 's Americans for a Republican Majority - have all claimed they are innocent.

Colyandro and Ellis have asked the court to throw out their cases on grounds similar to the defense in the TRMPAC civil lawsuit. State District Judge Bob Perkins is scheduled to rule on their motions June 27.

Using the indictments as a basis for action, Bell as a member of Congress last year asked the Ethics Committee to investigate DeLay for helping raise illegal campaign cash in Texas. Bell had lost his seat as a result of DeLay 's congressional redistricting plan.

Gerrymandering claims

The Ethics Committee deferred any action, saying it would follow the criminal cases to get a needed interpretation of Texas election laws.

Bell said Hart's ruling "serves as a good-faith basis for going forward with an investigation."

Texans for Public Justice in Austin and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington also called for new investigations into DeLay 's role in the corporate fund-raising.

"The House Ethics Committee has run out of excuses for avoiding an investigation into Rep. DeLay 's involvement with TRMPAC," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW.

A spokesman for the House Ethics Committee did not return calls for comment.

Sloan said DeLay engaged in a "conspiracy to violate" Texas campaign laws "in order to gerrymander Texas congressional districts."

Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, said Hart's ruling shows that further federal investigation of DeLay is needed.

"It's very bad news for Tom DeLay ," McDonald said. "We think it shows the need for an independent counsel to investigate this matter and other matters involving DeLay in Washington."

Public Citizen called for DeLay to resign.

"It is clear that (DeLay ) has abused the public trust and is unfit to lead. He should step down from his leadership post immediately," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.