Watchdog group says Craddick illegally trying to buy support
By JIM VERTUNO
Associated Press Writer
© 2008 The Associated Press
Feb. 11, 2008
AUSTIN — A political watchdog group on Monday alleged that House Speaker Tom Craddick is illegally trying to buy support for his re-election as the influential leader of the chamber.
Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint with Travis County prosecutors, asking District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, to open a criminal investigation. Craddick is a Republican.
"There's not any impropriety at all," said Roy Minton, Craddick's attorney. Minton said Craddick had nothing to do with the decision on which candidates received donations from the Texas Jobs Political Action Committee.
The district attorney's office is reviewing the complaint.
Craddick, who has said he intends to run for a fourth term as speaker, became House leader in 2003 after Republicans took control of that chamber for the first time since Reconstruction.
The watchdog group accuses Craddick of indirectly donating $50,000 to each of three Democrats who have supported Craddick and are facing re-election challenges within their party. A fourth Democrat turned down the money, the group said.
House members must elect a speaker when they convene next year. Craddick turned back two challenges to his leadership from his own party at the beginning and end of last year's legislative session. Fifteen Democrats were crucial in offsetting his loss of support among Republicans.
The key to the watchdog group's allegation is the timing of donations.
According to the complaint, the Texas Jobs Political Action Committee had reported no cash on hand as of Dec. 31, then received $250,000 from Craddick's campaign fund on Jan. 10. The next day, the committee sent $50,000 checks to the three Democrats.
The complaint said Craddick violated election and government codes by using campaign funds to aid his speaker candidacy.
"It (the money) was parked for one day to be laundered," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
Minton said the decision on who received money was an independent decision by the PAC.
The Democrats who accepted the money were Reps. Kevin Bailey of Houston, Kino Flores of Palmview and Aaron Pena of Edinburgh. The one who didn't was Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin. She did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Bailey was the only one of the three who accepted the money who returned a call Monday.
He said he needs the money for his campaign and has no plans to return it. He said he has not discussed the speaker's race with Craddick and it was not mentioned when the money was offered by the committee.
"Nobody's bought my vote. I have not pledged to anyone and I'm quite sure I won't until after the November elections," Bailey said.
Critics, including Bailey, have accused Texans for Public Justice of being a left-wing organization that usually targets Republicans.
"This public justice group is a big, partisan joke," Bailey said.
But even Craddick's Republican critics have said they're tired of what they see as his authoritarian, win-at-all-costs leadership style. The unrest peaked in the final days of the session when many opposed to Craddick walked out of the chamber, suspending the fevered rush to pass last-minute legislation.
Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox said prosecutors want to gather additional information in the form of documents. He declined to say what documents or if prosecutors would interview anyone.
"When a complaint comes in, we have to evaluate whether it's factually sufficient," Cox said. "These are steps that have to be taken before an investigation can be formally opened."
Earle, who is stepping down this year after three decades in office, has probed Craddick in the past.
Craddick paid his attorney at least $75,000 from his campaign fund in his bid to avoid indictment in the election-spending investigation that led to criminal charges against U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay. Craddick cooperated with prosecutors and was never indicted.