A Travis County grand jury indicted U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and two aides — John Colyandro and Jim Ellis — on charges of conspiring to illegally exchange $190,000 in corporate political contributions for that amount of non-corporate money.
DeLay replied with a partisan blast at Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and a profession of his own innocence: "I have done nothing wrong. I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House. I have done nothing unlawful, unethical, or, I might add, unprecedented, even in the political campaigns of Mr. Earle himself. My defense in this case will not be technical or legalistic. It will be categorical and absolute. I am innocent. Mr. Earle and his staff know it. And I will prove it."
The indictment forced DeLay out of his leadership post in the U.S. House. He said he will temporarily step down while he fights the accusations. Earlier this year, he and supporters attempted to change House Republican Conference rules to allow indicted leaders to hold their posts. But the furor of opponents was too strong, and they left the rule as it. The indictment forces DeLay aside, at least for now. A copy of Earle's press release and the indictment are on our website, at www.texasweekly.com/documents, or by clicking the "Files" button under the masthead.
Earle said he wasn't motivated by partisan politics, but by an imbalance of power: "I think that the Texas law that prohibits corporate contributions is a vital link in Texas democracy, and I think that great issue facing the American public is large aggregations of wealth, whether they be corporate or private, that are used in the political process. Texas law prohibits the use of corporate money — it makes that a felony... my job is to prosecute felonies."
The charges against one of the nation's most powerful politicians came at the busy end of a grand jury term, and with just a month left before the third anniversary of the 2002 general elections. Earlier this month, the grand jury restated year-old indictments against two DeLay associates, and also indicted a business trade group and a DeLay-related political action committee for illegal use of corporate money in the 2002 Texas legislative elections.
Many of the alleged infractions under investigation have three-year statutes of limitation, but Earle, asked if he's done, said the investigation is ongoing. Another grand jury starts work next week, and Earle said it's "entirely possible" they could take up the election cases (it's coming back in any case, for the regular lineup of crimes and misdemeanors, real and alleged, that occupy the schedule of the county courthouse). DeLay started TRMPAC and was one of five board members, along with then-Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza, who's now the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Sen. Florence Shapiro, Rep. Dianne Delisi and former Rep. Bill Ceverha of Dallas. The political action committee was patterned after Americans for a Republican Majority, or ARMPAC, a similar DeLay outfit that operates in federal races.
The Synopsis, In Case You Missed an Episode
Travis County prosecutors got interested in the 2002 elections right after the results were in. And they've said they were tipped publicly — as opposed to anonymously — when the Texas Association of Business bragged openly about its role in helping making the Texas House Republican for the first time since the Civil War.
TAB crowed about their successful efforts, delivering thick packets to reporters and other interested parties — packets that contained all of the direct mail pieces that were dropped in the districts of their favorite and least favorite candidates. That program was financed largely with corporate money, but TAB argued that it was a legal form of campaigning, since the pieces were sent to educate voters and not to tell them how to vote. They also said they weren't coordinating their activities with the campaigns themselves.
The inquiry initially seemed to focus on coordination of activities between TAB, the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, or TRMPAC, started by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and other groups including Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Law Enforcement Association of America. The grand juries and prosecutors were asking questions about who talked to whom and when, and whether contributions and expenditures were being coordinated, and about who was sharing polling information and campaign strategies, and so on.
They were trying to figure out whether the people who took over the Legislature in 2002 did so because they broke the law or because they were simply more clever than their opponents. That's still the basic question almost three years later.
Republicans made no secret of their desire to complete their takeover of Texas politics. Redistricting had produced a map of House districts that was friendlier to the GOP and that gave Republicans a real chance to win a House majority for the first time in a century. A big enough majority could then unseat House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat, and could open congressional redistricting to send the Republican wave through the Texas congressional delegation. The 2002 elections put the first and most important piece of that plan in place, and Republican officeholders and strategists from the local to the national level were doing what they could to help.
That's just politics. The question is whether they did anything illegal along the way, turning a legal conspiracy — to take over the Legislature through elections — into an illegal one — to do it by circumventing the state's election law and using corporate money where it's not allowed.
Through 2003, 2004 and most of 2005, various grand juries looked at campaign finance reports and campaign ads and talked to people who were involved in the campaigns. In September of last year, a grand jury reported the first indictments, naming John Colyandro, Jim Ellis, Warren RoBold, and eight corporations.
Over the months that followed, several of those corporations signed agreements admitting no wrongdoing, promising to go forth and sin no more, agreeing to cooperate with the investigation, and in some cases, contributing to ethics programs at the University of Texas and elsewhere. In return, the charges against them were dropped. The three men haven't been tried on the charges against them. And charges against Colyandro and Ellis have been expanded and reworded in the last year (they were also named in the most recent indictment, along with DeLay).
Here's a quick walk through what the grand juries have done. You can look through all of the indictments in the files section of our website. Click on "files" above, under the Texas Weekly masthead.
• September 2004: A grand jury issues 32 indictments against Colyandro, Ellis, RoBold — associates of DeLay — and eight corporations after weeks of speculation that the panel would forego indictments in favor of a report recommending changes to state election law. The companies were charged with using corporate money in campaigns. Colyandro and Ellis were charged with money laundering, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison. Colyandro and RoBold were accused of illegally accepting corporate contributions. At the time, DeLay issued a statement: "This just emphasizes what I've been saying all along, that this investigation isn't about me. I haven't been asked to testify, I haven't been asked to provide any records, I haven't been asked to come as a witness.''
• May 2005: State District Judge Joe Hart says Bill Ceverha, TRMPAC's treasurer failed to properly report $613,433 in contributions and $684,507 in spending during the 2002 elections and is personally liable for almost $200,000 in damages to the Democrats on the other side of those races.
• July 2005: The grand jury revises its charges against Colyandro and Ellis, changing the work "check" to "funds" in allegations they illegally laundered corporate money in political campaigns.
• September 2005: A new indictment against Colyandro and Ellis repeats earlier money-laundering charges and adds charges they made illegal contributions of corporate money and that they gave money to the Republican Party illegally close to an election, and that they engaged in a criminal conspiracy to violate Texas election laws.
• September 2005: The grand jury issues five indictments containing 130 counts against TRMPAC and TAB. TAB was accused of illegally soliciting corporate contributions, illegally contributing corporate money, and illegally spending that money directly and indirectly. TRMPAC was accused of illegally accepting corporate money.
• September 2005: DeLay is indicted (and Colyandro and Ellis are re-indicted) on charges of conspiracy to violate state election laws. The grand jury said they agreed that TRMPAC would accept corporate contributions, that they then delivered a $190,000 check to the Republican National Committee along with a list of seven House candidates in Texas and that the RNC then cut checks to the seven candidates from non-corporate accounts. That's the same transaction that led to money laundering charges against Colyandro and Ellis a year ago.
DeLay's First Line of Defense
In his statement to reporters in Washington, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, says he'll temporarily give up his job as majority leader — the House GOP's rules require it — and concentrate on defending himself in Texas. He's promising a battle on the twin fronts of the courtroom and the public square. It's safe to say he worked on this with his defense lawyers, to lay out the bones of his defense. His statement, in full:
"This morning, in an act of blatant political partisanship, a rogue district attorney in Travis County, Texas, named Ronnie Earle, charged me with one count of criminal conspiracy, a reckless charge wholly unsupported by the facts. This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history. It's a sham, and Mr. Earle knows it. It's a charge that cannot hold up even under the most glancing scrutiny.
"This act is the product of a coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution, the all too predictable result of a vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic. Mr. Earle is abusing the power of his office to exact personal revenge for the role I played in the Texas Republican legislative campaign in 2002, and my advocacy for a new, fair, and constitutional congressional map for our state in 2003.
"As it turned out, those efforts were successful. Texas Republicans did indeed win a legislative majority. A fair and representative congressional map was drawn and it was approved by the Legislature. And the Texas congressional delegation now, after the 2004 elections, fairly represents the values and attitudes of the people of the state of Texas.
"Over the course of this long and bitter political battle, it became clear that the retribution for our success would be ferocious. Today, that retribution is being exacted. Mr. Earle, an unabashed partisan zealot with a well-documented history of launching baseless investigations and indictments against his political enemies, has been targeting a political action committee on whose advisory board I once served. During his investigation, he has gone out of his way to give several media interviews in his office — the only days he actually comes to the office, I'm told — in which he has singled me out for personal attacks in direct violation of his public responsibility to conduct an impartial inquiry.
"Despite his longstanding animosity toward me — and the abusive investigation that animosity has unfortunately rendered — as recently as two weeks ago, Mr. Earle himself publicly admitted I had never been a focus or target of his inquiry. Soon thereafter, Mr. Earle's hometown newspaper ran a biting editorial about his investigation, rhetorically asking what the point had been, after all, if I wasn't to be indicted. It was this renewed political pressure in the waning days of his hollow investigation that led to this morning's action, political pressure that also came from Democrat leaders.
"In accordance with the rules of the House Republican Conference, I will temporarily step aside as floor leader in order to win exoneration from these baseless charges.
"Now let me be very, very clear. I have done nothing wrong. I have violated no law, no regulation, no rule of the House. I have done nothing unlawful, unethical, or, I might add, unprecedented, even in the political campaigns of Mr. Earle himself. My defense in this case will not be technical or legalistic. It will be categorical and absolute. I am innocent. Mr. Earle and his staff know it. And I will prove it.
"Here in Washington, there's work — hard, hard work — ahead of our conference. We have a war to win, a region to rebuild, a budget to balance, taxes to cut, a government to reform, and a nation to lead. In coming weeks, the House is committed to major legislation reforming our border security and immigration laws, alleviating the rising costs of gasoline and heating fuel before the winter, and saving tens of billions of dollars through reforming federal entitlement programs. My job right now is to serve my constituents and our nation in support of this ambitious and needed agenda.
"As for the charges, I have the facts, the law, and the truth on my side — just as I have against every false allegation my opponents have flung at me over the last ten years. Once exposed to the light of objective scrutiny, every one of their frivolous accusations against me has been dismissed, and so will Mr. Earle's.
"Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak to you guys today. Thank you."
All Politics is Local, Even When It Gets National Attention
Ronnie Earle and Tom DeLay are perennially controversial politicians who have managed, so far, to convert the frustrations of their enemies into political strength. Plus, they both provide excellent fundraising fodder to the other side. Republicans use Earle to light up their supporters just as Democrats use DeLay to ignite theirs. Right now, Earle appears stronger on his home front than DeLay does on his; Travis County looks safer for a Democrat than CD-22 is for a Republican.
Earle was first elected district attorney in 1976, and Texas district attorneys are notoriously hard to knock off in elections unless they've committed something that — in the eyes of voters — is a sin. He's no exception. His toughest modern race came when Republican Shane Phelps ran against him in 1996. Phelps was a revenge candidate of sorts, with plenty of help from Kay Bailey Hutchison and her cohort, who felt wronged by Earle's prosecution of the U.S. Senator in 1994. He lost, with 44 percent of the vote, and got 45 percent in a rematch four years later.
State Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, has been talked about as a candidate for the job, but he used to be Earle's first assistant and won't challenge him. Keel is running for a judgeship next year. Last year, the Republicans didn't even put up a candidate and Earle got 82.9 percent of the vote against William Howell, a Libertarian. That's a four-year term, too, so Earle won't be up for reelection, if he seeks it, until 2008. Travis County remains a tough slog for the GOP. If you'll remember those county maps of the United States after the last presidential election — the ones that split the country into blue and red for Democratic and Republican voting results — Travis County looked like a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup. George W. Bush got just under 42 percent of the vote. Not one Republican ran countywide and won against a Democratic opponent. It's blue.
DeLay was surprised by a no-name Democrat — Richard Morrison — who capitalized on the incumbent's ethical travails to win 41 percent of the vote in the general election. DeLay got 55 percent, while a Libertarian and an independent corralled the rest of the votes. That's a handy win, but it showed the wolves some red meat; DeLay got 64.3 percent in the 2002 elections, albeit under a different map. Next year, former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson will be on the Democratic side of the ledger. He lost his seat to Republican Ted Poe of Houston after redistricting and moved into CD-22, but he's got more experience than Morrison had. And with DeLay's new troubles, there is a chance — yet unproven — that Democrats will be willing to fund his campaign in a meaningful way. DeLay has been working harder on the home front than in years past, and it's Republican turf. But trouble at the courthouse won't help.
DeLay and Lampson had both turned the indictments into fundraising appeals by the end of the day they were dealt by the grand jury. On his political site — www.tomdelay.com — DeLay posted his team's legal analysis of the case, along with an attack on Earle, a list of quotes of other people attacking Earle, and a timeline of the case. It includes a "Stand with Tom" link that asks supporters to join an email list, and the website also includes a contribution links so people can give to the campaign online. It apparently does not include any links for contributors to DeLay's legal defense fund, which was up and running well before any indictments were issued.
Lampson, meanwhile, sent out a fundraising email that starts with its own spin on the allegations: "Today, a grand jury in Travis County indicted Congressman Tom DeLay on criminal conspiracy charges related to his political organization, TRMPAC, which illegally used corporate funds during the 2002 Texas legislative campaign." It defends Earle as having indicted more Democrats than Republicans, says the election will be about "integrity" and includes three different links to the campaign's fundraising window on the Internet (the main site is www.lampson.com).
Meaningless Trivia: DeLay's middle name is Dale. So is Earle's.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin of Houston did this same dance a little over ten years ago, when DeGuerin defended U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. DeGuerin prevailed in the earlier contest, after a fashion. The judge in that case, John Onion Jr., told the prosecutors he would wait until the trial started to decide whether to admit evidence they obtained in a raid on Hutchison's state office (she was treasurer before winning the Senate seat in a special election). Without the certainty of that ruling in hand, Earle didn't present his case against Hutchison. What was expected to be a weeks-long trial turned into a quick acquittal, and Earle and DeGuerin never got their duel in court.
The run-up, however, was a smash-mouth affair, and DeGuerin, who is now on U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's team, is taking the same tack this time he took with Earle in 1994. DeLay opened with an attack on Earle, calling the charges baseless and politically motivated. DeGuerin told reporters during the Hutchison fight that Earle had wanted the Senate gig himself and that he was tearing down the Republican in hopes of some political reward that might result. Earle, then and now, offered the same defense: "I don't know what else they would say."
Casing the Race and Other Political Notes
Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace is telling everybody (except reporters, apparently) that he's seriously thinking about running for comptroller of public accounts in next year's Republican primary, setting up a race between him and Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, who's been organizing and fundraising for that contest for months.
Wallace hasn't run statewide. He's a second-term mayor and former city council member, and works for a real estate and investment firm there.
Combs, who endorsed Gov. Rick Perry early in the game, is the management favorite at this point and has been working on the comptroller's race since before it was clear what the current comptroller, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, would do. Strayhorn is now running for governor against the guy Combs endorsed. And Combs' entry into the comptroller race was a little too tight for the current occupant. The two squabbled some when Combs said she was running; Combs said Strayhorn assured her the seat would be open, while Strayhorn said she hadn't gone that far. Whatever the case then, it's now clear that Combs is running for an open seat. Strayhorn's camp has quietly encouraged Wallace (and, before that, FDIC honcho Don Powell, an Amarillo banker) to get into the race. He's been ducking calls on that subject for a couple of weeks.
• Dallas County GOP chairman Nate Crain won't seek another term, but told fellow Republicans he's interested in becoming state chairman next year. Tina Benkiser hasn't said whether she'll run for reelection. The Dallas Morning News has former Rep. Kenn George, R-Dallas, contending for Crain's current job.
• Put David Harris, a Fort Worth Democrat, in the CD-6 race against U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis. Harris, a major in the Army Reserve and an Iraq vet, is launching his campaign and his website in the next few weeks, but he's emailing regular commentary about the incumbent. His website is www.followmetodc.com.
• Don't fall out of your chair if Ben Streusand shows up running for the Texas Senate against Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria. Armbrister hasn't declared for reelection, and Republicans are looking at his turf and thinking it ought to be on their side of the ledger (Republicans in the Senate see Armbrister as a reliable ally on the other side of the lines, but that's not how it plays in Fort Bend County). Streusand was looking at SD-7, where Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, is not seeking reelection. But that's a crowded race with at least three Republicans already running and some Republicans are nudging Streusand, who lost a race for Congress to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, last year, to think about SD-18.
• Texans for Lawsuit Reform endorsed Lee Parsley for the 3rd Court of Appeals, based in Austin. He's a Republican and the husband of Public Utility Commissioner Julie Parsley.
• One for the lawyers: The Texas Supreme Court granted dispensation to attorneys who miss filing deadlines because of Hurricane Rita, particularly when the offices of court clerks who'd normally receive those filings are closed.
Political People and Their Moves
It's a tradition at the Texas Railroad Commission to give the middle chair — the chair's seat — to whichever of the three commissioners is up for election next. That's Elizabeth Ames Jones this time. Jones, a former House member appointed to the RRC when Charles Matthews resigned earlier this year, is up for election in 2006. And she'll run as the agency's chairwoman. Victor Carrillo gave up the spot at the RRC's last meeting.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Rick Strange of Midland and Jim Wright of Eastland to new spots on the 11th Court of Appeals. Strange is a private attorney who's on the development board at Hardin-Simmons University, and will join the court for the first time. Wright's already there, but he'll be the chief justice now. He's a former district judge. Both will be on the ballot next year if they want to keep the jobs.
Dan Mills of Johnson City, currently an assistant U.S. Attorney, will preside over the 424th Judicial District court that stretches across Blanco, Burnet, Llano and San Saba counties.
Perry named Bill Henry of San Marcos to run the 428th Judicial District Court in Hays County. He's an assistant attorney general and was in private practice for 14 years before that.
Danny Clancy and Livia Liu have new jobs — the Guv appointed them to criminal district courts numbers 6 and 7, respectively. Clancy is a county criminal court judge. Liu is an assistant Dallas County district attorney. Both will have to run for election next year to keep those seats.
Perry appointed Robert Ellis, a consultant and bank board member, to the board of the Texas Growth Fund, a state fund that makes venture capital and private equity investments.
Mike Arismendez Jr. of Shallowater and Lilian Norman-Keeney of Taylor Lake Village are Perry's picks for open spots at the Texas Commission of Licensing and Regulation. Arismendez is assistant to Lubbock's City Council and is the former mayor of Shallowater, and he was a Perry appointee on the Texas Motor Vehicle Board. Norman-Keeney is mayor pro-tem of Taylor Lake Village and owns an insurance agency.
State Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, was elected treasurer of the Southern States Energy Board, an interstate compact for 16 southern states and two U.S. territories.
Jared Wolfe is leaving the Texas Senate to become executive director of the Texas Association of Health Plans. He's been working for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for three years.
Deaths: W.G. Laney, father of former House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center. He was 86.
Quotes of the Week
Bill White of Austin, a lawyer for U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, in The Dallas Morning News, on the charge against his client: "It's a skunky indictment."
Grand jury foreman William Gibson, a retired sheriff's deputy, quoted by the Associated Press on the DeLay case: "Ronnie Earle didn't indict him. The grand jury indicted him."
Beaumont Port officer Renee Utley in The Washington Post: "You got storm surge. You got flooding. You got spin-off tornadoes, and you got hurricane winds coming. You'll get a lot for your money with this storm."
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, talking to TheWashington Post after the storm: "Many communities, faith-based entities and the state of Texas have drained assets to save lives and help with the enormous multi-state national emergency, and they will need reimbursement to avoid massive financial failures."
House Speaker Tom Craddick in the Midland Reporter-Telegram: "I'm for closing the bad schools. As you know, a lot of schools are cheating on TAKS. I support making the responsible school officials criminally liable. But the Texas Association of School Administrators says, 'No.'"
Steven Stough, a science teacher who is among the parents suing the Dover, Pennsylvania school district over plans to teach "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution in biology classes, in The New York Times: "In science class, you don't say to the students, 'Is there gravity, or do you think we have rubber bands on our feet?'"
Texas Weekly: Volume 22, Issue 16, 3 October 2005. Ross Ramsey, Editor. George Phenix, Publisher. Copyright 2005 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (800) 611-4980 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For news, email email@example.com, or call (512) 288-6598.