Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Travis County prosecutors are reviewing a complaint contending that Speaker Tom Craddick illegally channeled $150,000 to fellow legislators to boost his bid to return as House leader. Read the article at the Austin American-Statesman

Group: Speaker broke law with campaign cash

Whether Craddick donated to legislators is focus of Travis district attorney's office inquiry.
By Laylan Copelin | Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Travis County prosecutors are reviewing a complaint contending that Speaker Tom Craddick illegally channeled $150,000 to fellow legislators to boost his bid to return as House leader.

On Jan. 10, Craddick revitalized an almost dormant political committee, Texans for Jobs & Opportunity Build a Secure Future, with a $250,000 donation from his campaign account, according to public documents.

Tom Craddick gave $250,000 to political committee.

It was the only money the political committee had when it made $50,000 donations the next day to Democratic Reps. Aaron Peña of Edinburg, Kino Flores of Palmview and Kevin Bailey of Houston, according to campaign finance reports cited in a complaint filed Monday. The three are past supporters of Craddick and are facing challenges from within their party. A fourth Democrat, Dawnna Dukes of Austin, turned down the money.

Monday's complaint, filed by a campaign finance watchdog group, comes in the middle of a heated campaign against Craddick's re-election as speaker and raises questions about what has become a common practice: speakers donating campaign cash indirectly to fellow lawmakers.

Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice filed the complaint with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. It is the same group that complained to Earle four years ago about then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is awaiting trial on money laundering charges brought by Earle.

"Texas law is clear: You can't buy the speaker's gavel by bankrolling the campaigns of House candidates," McDonald said Monday. "Nor can you make a political contribution under someone else's name. It's hard to argue that the Texas Jobs PAC didn't launder Craddick's money. By its own accounting, it didn't have another cent to its name."

Austin lawyer Roy Minton, who represents Craddick, said McDonald's letter wrongly assumes that Craddick told the political committee which lawmakers to support. He said Craddick's $250,000 donation to the committee and that group's subsequent support of the Democrats were unrelated transactions.

"I honest to God don't think there was any kind of wink of the eye or an understanding," Minton said.

James Cardle, a key member of the political committee, is an activist associated with several conservative organizations. He did not return phone calls to comment on why the committee supported three Democrats. But it's hardly a state secret that Craddick has offset defections by Republicans with support from among a handful of Democrats.

The $50,000 donations came unsolicited.

Bailey, who said it was the biggest campaign contribution he has ever received, said he didn't know who Cardle was when he called offering the money. He assumed the committee wanted to support him because of his work on the Business and Industry Committee.

Bailey, who said he's not pledged to a speaker candidate, said he was unaware of Craddick's donations to the committee. But he said Craddick's opponents are threatening not to support him unless "I sign a blood oath that I won't vote for Craddick."

Peña said his $50,000 check just showed up in the mail. He said he didn't know about the committee until he read about it later. "I don't travel in those circles," he said.

He dismissed the complaint as "gotcha politics" and said he won't return the money, adding, "It's spent."

Flores did not return a call for comment.

Twice last year, Craddick blocked attempts by Republicans and Democrats to replace him.

This year's elections will determine whether the House, closely divided between pro- and anti-Craddick forces, will tilt one way or another. Craddick has a $4 million war chest, mostly from lobbyists, that could be a factor if he can continue to give money to other campaigns as he has done in the past.

Minton suggested that the complaint is a politically motivated attempt to freeze his client's use of his campaign money.

Earle said the law serves a purpose: "It's to keep the selection of the speaker a family affair in the House and not to leave it to large moneyed interests."

This is not the first time a speaker has donated money from his account to a political committee that helped his supporters.

Over the past four years, Craddick has given $235,000 to Stars Over Texas, a political committee that helps re-elect GOP House members. In 2006, he gave $90,000 to Texas Opportunity, which also supported GOP House incumbents.

Craddick's predecessor, Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, donated $40,000 to Texas Partnership, a political committee that provided consultants, pollsters and direct mail for House Democratic incumbents.

McDonald's complaint suggests that Craddick violated state law by channeling money to the three Democrats. McDonald said the transaction violated the so-called speaker's statute, which prohibits anyone, including a speaker candidate, from spending campaign donations to aid or defeat a speaker candidate.