Saturday, June 25, 2005

Documents released in a civil lawsuit Friday show that Texas Association of Business officials were trying to influence the outcome of state House races when they ran a $1.7 million "voter education project" paid for with corporate money.

Records: TAB officials wished to sway races

But the group says that its ads did not violate any election law

By R.G. RATCLIFFE, Houston Chronicle
Saturday, June 25, 2005

AUSTIN - Documents released in a civil lawsuit Friday show that Texas Association of Business officials were trying to influence the outcome of state House races when they ran a $1.7 million "voter education project" paid for with corporate money.

"Of the nine incumbents ... we went after, seven were defeated. This is huge news," a TAB executive said in a 2002 e-mail the day after the group helped Republicans win control of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction.

TAB officials have claimed that their corporate spending was meant to educate voters, not affect elections.

TAB and its president, Bill Hammond, have been part of a 2 1/2 -year state criminal investigation into whether state election law was violated when corporate money was used to influence the 2002 elections. TAB targeted 22 House races; Republican candidates won 18.

TAB is the umbrella organization for Texas' local Chambers of Commerce.

Indictments have been returned against three associates of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in connection with how corporate money was spent by the political action committee Texans for a Republican Majority. TRMPAC coordinated its activities with TAB. The TRMPAC defendants say they are innocent.

In addition to the criminal investigation, TAB and TRMPAC face multiple lawsuits brought by losing Democratic candidates.

The records were released in a lawsuit brought by losing Austin Democrat James Sylvester. TAB had fought release of the records, and the Texas Supreme Court sat on the appeal for 17 months before ruling against TAB on June 10.

TAB lawyer Andy Taylor said the organization did not violate the state law banning the use of corporate money to influence elections because none of its direct mail or television advertising ever advocated the election or defeat of a candidate.

He said the fact that TAB executives wanted to influence the elections is irrelevant to the case.

"On no occasion did we ever use words of 'vote for' or 'vote against' in these ads," Taylor said. "It's the content of the speech, not the intention of the speaker, that counts for First Amendment purposes."

Actions and words

Taylor said TAB was trying to "shed light on candidates' positions on the issues."

But plaintiff attorney Randall "Buck" Wood said the documents show TAB was, under the law, acting like a political action committee.

"The real test is whether a citizen of ordinary intelligence can determine whether they (the ads) were meant to elect or defeat a candidate," Wood said.

The investigations and lawsuits began shortly after Hammond bragged in the TAB newsletter after the 2002 elections that he had used $1.9 million in corporate money to help win control of the House.

The records released Friday show the amount of corporate money involved actually was $1.7 million, from 42 donations. The number of donors is thought to be fewer than 42.

The names of the donors were kept secret. Wood said he will go back to court to seek the names. The corporations can be subject to fines of double the amount of their contribution if it is found to have been made illegally.

The largest contribution was $250,000 from a corporation that was not a member of TAB; $480,000 in corporate cash came from companies that were not members of TAB.

That is significant because organizations such as TAB have additional First Amendment free speech protections if they are taking political action just among their members.

Taylor estimated he released about 20,000 pages of documents to Wood.

TAB allowed the Houston Chronicle to survey the documents which showed the group's officials wanted to influence the 2002 elections.

An August 2002 letter to potential corporate donors by Hammond noted the organization had used corporate money to influence some of the primary elections that year.

"Of the 12 runoffs we targeted, nine were successful," Hammond said.

The letter said there were at least "15 races that we plan to target" in the general election.

A September 2002 solicitation by Hammond asked corporations "in the insurance industry to write a check for $50,000 or $100,000 to the TAB voter education project."

Another e-mail by TAB executive Jack Campbell was sent to then-Republican House candidate Todd Baxter with a copy of a corporate-financed direct-mail piece that was sent out attacking incumbent Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin.

"This was sent out yesterday," Campbell said.

Taylor said the e-mail does not show coordination between TAB and Baxter. He said the e-mail shows that TAB tried to keep Baxter abreast of its actions in his race.

Other accusations

On another occasion, TRMPAC Executive Director John Colyandro sent Hammond an e-mail asking for approval on the script for a television commercial attacking incumbent Rep. John Mabry, D-Waco, and praising his Republican opponent, Holt Getterman.

"We need to get this into production today," Colyandro said.

Taylor said TAB paid for a television commercial in the Mabry race with TAB-raised corporate money, but he did not know if it was the ad mentioned in Colyandro's e-mail.

Colyandro has been indicted on a charge of accepting illegal corporate money for TRMPAC. He is contesting that charge.

In an unrelated lawsuit, state District Judge Joe Hart last month ruled that TRMPAC's treasurer, Bill Ceverha, violated state election law by not disclosing the corporate money the group raised.