Gift checked in at $50,000Exclusive: 2004 donation to state board appointee sparked ethics storm
Wednesday, April 5, 2006
By CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Megadonor Bob Perry gave state board appointee Bill Ceverha a gift of $50,000 – described only as a check on ethics forms – in 2004, both men confirmed Tuesday, the first time the gift's amount has been disclosed.
Mr. Perry followed with another gift of $50,000 in January 2005, and that is due to be reported to the state in May, the Republicans said.
The men said they came forward with the total of $100,000, even though they didn't have to, after recognizing that the secrecy shrouding the gift had touched off an outcry over vague requirements for public officials to disclose personal gifts. The Texas Ethics Commission decided in the case that state disclosure laws don't require specifying the amount of a monetary gift.
Public advocacy groups, lawmakers and others have decried the ruling, rendered 10 days ago, saying it creates a gigantic loophole that allows public officials to accept huge amounts of cash, which could legally reported as "a stack of paper."
The commission determined that Mr. Ceverha, a member of the board that governs the state Employees Retirement System, met the legal requirements when he listed the gift from Mr. Perry only as a check.
Some commission members said that the law called only for a description of the gift – not its value – and that the loophole would have to be closed by the Legislature.
Mr. Ceverha, a Dallas businessman and longtime GOP activist, incurred about $850,000 in legal fees and declared personal bankruptcy last year after a judge in a civil lawsuit found him responsible for the improper actions of the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee, which he served as treasurer.
Mr. Perry and Mr. Ceverha provided identical letters from Mr. Perry that accompanied the checks, dated Sept. 8, 2004 and Jan. 27, 2005. The letters describe a $50,000 gift with no strings attached but state that Mr. Perry assumes the money would go toward legal fees and that "no contribution to any candidate or political action committee ... will be made or will result as a consequence of your personal use of these funds."
"We've now gone beyond the requirement," Mr. Ceverha said.
Perry spokesman Anthony Holm said the private homebuilder has "zero interest" in the state retirement system and viewed the check to Mr. Ceverha as charitable giving.
"Both men have chosen to operate above and beyond what the law requires. Mr. Perry has always respected open government," Mr. Holm said.
The activities of TRMPAC led to the criminal indictment of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay and two of his top lieutenants on charges that they laundered corporate money – which can't be used in Texas political races – and funneled it into key state House races.
The success in those races led to a GOP majority in the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction, the election of Tom Craddick as speaker and subsequent congressional redistricting that boosted the GOP majority in Washington.
Mr. Craddick is close friends with Mr. Ceverha and appointed him to the state retirement commission.
Mr. Perry, the largest donor to Republican causes in the state, also was a large contributor to TRMPAC.
Mr. Perry considered the $100,000 a charitable gesture, even paying the taxes on the gift, Mr. Holm said.
"Bill Ceverha and his family had a disservice done to them. He and his family were literally driven to bankruptcy," Mr. Holm said.
Because the top leaders of TRMPAC were under criminal charges and the committee folded, Mr. Ceverha was the only one left to sue in civil court, and he alone faced the $196,000 judgment, along with his legal fees.
Mr. Ceverha said that the lawsuit has left him with little and that he put out solicitations by mail and in person to raise money to diminish his debts.
"I was awestruck, frankly, not only that he would do that much, but that he did it as a gift where he had to pay taxes," Mr. Ceverha said of Mr. Perry. "He just felt what a difficult situation this lawsuit had put me in and that it was draining my resources, and he wanted to help."
Mr. Ceverha said that in addition to the $100,000 from Mr. Perry, he received other checks and gifts totaling close to $30,000.
All of the money immediately went to satisfy his legal fees, he said.
Cris Feldman, the attorney for the defeated Democratic candidates who sued TRMPAC, has not been paid by Mr. Ceverha, and his firm is listed as a creditor in the bankruptcy. He had sought through bankruptcy court filings to have the amount of the gift disclosed.
Told Tuesday of the amounts, Mr. Feldman said the gift and how it was spent still raise questions.
"Given Mr. Ceverha's history of hiding money in TRMPAC and not saying where it was spent, the revelation warrants a thorough investigation," Mr. Feldman said. "His suggestion that this was spent on legal fees can't be taken on face value. How this money was spent is an area where he has little or no credibility."