The Week in the Rearview Mirror

A Travis County grand jury, on its first day of work, indicted U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, on a new felony count of money laundering and another of conspiracy. That's not in addition to the charge leveled last week, but in replacement of it. The law cited in last week's indictment took effect a year after the 2002 elections -- a year after the alleged conspiracy DeLay was accused of assisting. DeLay's lawyers noticed and filed papers demanding that the charge be dropped. It has been dropped, but DeLay was reindicted on a money laundering charge and a different conspiracy charge stemming from the same events. Prosecutors have zeroed in on a series of transactions where the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC gave $190,000 to the national Republican Party and the GOP gave campaign contributions to seven Texas House candidates. They contend the money from TRMPAC was comprised of corporate funds and that the GOP sent back money from individual contributions, effectively converting corporate money -- which can't be used legally in Texas campaigns -- into money that was legal. Two DeLay associates -- John Colyandro of Austin and Jim Ellis of Washington, D.C. -- were in the same boat, having an indictment dropped and a new one added. DeLay, according to the indictment, had waived his protection under the statute of limitations (though there is some question as to whether he withdrew that waiver before the new indictments were issued). The statute limits indictments to three years (in this case) after the alleged events took place. The check to the Republican National State Elections Committee was dated September 13, 2002; DeLay's latest indictment is dated October 3, 2005 -- three years and two weeks later. The checks from the RNSEC to the seven candidates were dated October 4, 2002 -- making the new indictment one day short of the third anniversary. According to prosecutors, money laundering is a first-degree felony punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and up to life in prison. The conspiracy charges apparently carry penalties of up to $20,000 and up to two years in prison. A copy of the new indictment can be snagged at this link: 

Tom DeLay has two fights on his hands. One is legal, and that's what all of the paper flying around the courthouse is about. The other is political, and that's why the lawyers and his supporters and detractors are spending so much of their time in the media, doing interviews and spinning, spinning, spinning. The legal fight, though it'll play out loudly, boils down to a simple question: Did DeLay and others illegally use corporate money in Texas legislative elections in 2002? They're accused of raising $190,000 above and beyond administrative expenses and then contributing that to an arm of the Republican National Committee. Along with that check, they're alleged to have sent a list of seven candidates along with the amounts each should get. Those seven check totaled $190,000. The Texans, according to prosecutors, were trading unusable corporate money for usable non-corporate money. That's the basis of the money laundering charges against DeLay, John Colyandro, and Jim Ellis. The conspiracy charge says, essentially, that they did that together and intentionally and knowing they were breaking the law. On a normal semi-fast track, the case could go to court next spring. DeLay and his legal team want to go faster, though, and for political reasons. He temporarily gave up his gig as House Majority Leader when he was indicted. The Republicans of the House decided some months ago that they didn't want to leave indicted leaders in office. DeLay has until early next year to get rid of the indictment or face the prospect that his fellow Republicans will elect a slate of permanent leaders that doesn't include him. A long or even a normal wait for a trial date could knock him out of power for some time.
  It's a flip of what happened to Texas Democrats in redistricting. The 2002 elections put Republicans in solid control of the Legislature for the first time in a century. They promptly redrew congressional districts -- maybe "promptly" is a stretch, but they redid the maps -- and Texas voters then elected a congressional delegation that includes 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Even if it's decided later that something was amiss in the first step of that program, the political composition of the state is changed. The Republicans won. Similarly, a slow trial that would take DeLay out of the leadership in the U.S. House might lead to his exoneration, but he's still be forced out of the fancy office he was in a month ago. That's why the political fight makes a difference to him and his supporters and lawyers. Winning too slowly is the same thing as losing. 

Say, for the sake of argument, that the prosecutors and grand juries in Travis County are finished with the 2002 elections. It began almost three years ago as an investigation of whether the Republicans played fair and square on their way to their first legislative majority since Reconstruction. It ended -- if it's over -- with indictments of a congressman, three political operatives, a trade group, a political action committee, and eight out-of-state corporations. If you draw a line separating national and state politics, none of the fish in the net came from the state side of that line. Tom DeLay is a Texan but isn't really in state politics. Only one of the political consultants -- all of them DeLay associates -- even lives in Texas. The Texas Association of Business was indicted but none of its officers, directors or employees faces charges. Those four individuals who were indicted were all connected to the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC and while TRMPAC was indicted, it's also inactive. And more than half of the corporations that were charged with illegally contributing have signed deals specifying just what they did and didn't do, admitting no wrong, agreeing to go forth and sin no more, and contributed to various ethics-boosting efforts favored by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle.
  It's not a path to reform. Republican ops, and even the Democrats, will tell you that almost nobody does what TAB, TRMPAC and company are alleged to have done. Nothing so far tells the political hacks to change their ways, so that kind of reform is out. And there's not really anything to change in the law, unless it's shown to have some gaping loophole. There's no obvious reform hook for an ambitious pol here, unless the prosecutors get stomped in the courtroom. If that happens, somebody could always come in and try to make the edges of the field clearer, so everyone would know what's in bounds and what's out of bounds. It's not exactly a feast for reformers of political practice or campaign law. 

State leaders have been pushing a "65 percent rule" in public education that would require Texas school district spend at least that percentage of their money on instruction. The definition is up in the air -- should transportation be allowed? Food? Coaches? A panel assembled by Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley will work out the definition. But state law already requires school districts in Texas to report an "instructional expenditure ratio" that's supposed to show, according to the Texas Education Agency's website, "the percentage of the district's total actual expenditures... used to fund direct instructional activities." In the 2002-03 school year (the latest for which TEA has cranked the numbers), the overall ratio for the state's school districts is close to the mark, at 64.8 percent. Keep the caveat in mind -- the definition could change as Neeley's panel works, and if it does, the numbers will surely change. But under the measurement currently used, here's how the state's districts stack up: • Only three of the 25 biggest districts -- Austin, Brownsville, and Conroe -- are below the 65 percent mark. In the Austin ISD, 62.8 percent of the money went to "instructional expenditures." Brownsville almost made the mark, at 64.9 percent, and Conroe fell in at 63.3 percent. Only ten of the top fifty districts (measured by enrollment) were below 65 percent, and none of those was below 62 percent. By contrast, only seven of the state's smallest 50 districts made the mark. • Of the state's 1,037 school districts, 250 were at or above the 65 percent mark as it's currently defined. That's fewer than half the districts, but they educate well over half the state's public school students. Those 250 districts enrolled 2,535,678 students out of 4,250,754 enrolled in 2002-03. That's 59.6 percent of the public school students. • On average, a 65 percent rule will be harder on smaller districts. Districts with ratios over 70 percent had, on average, 11,425 students. Those between 65 and 70 percent had an average of 9,777 students. Those between 60 and 65 percent averaged 2,829 students. Between 55 and 60 percent, 922 students. Below 55 percent, 257 students. The average Texas district has 4,099 students (or did, in the 2002-03 school year), and a little more than half of the state's districts have fewer than 1,000 students. Setting a 65 percent mark and punishing districts that don't make it could, eventually, force consolidation of small districts into larger ones. Policy makers have tried to do that before, but local communities hold their school districts dear and consolidation didn't make for good politics. We charted the numbers using stats from the TEA's Academic Excellence Indicator System and stuck a copy in our Files section. School districts are sorted by county and then by name. 

Rep. Scott Campbell, R-San Angelo, has two challengers on the radar, both of them Republicans. Kevin Housely, a trustee with the Christoval ISD, works in family owned telecommunications engineering company and owns a cattle operation. Just out of college, he did political/government stints with former U.S. Rep. Tom Loeffler, former Gov. William Clements, and with former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Flower Mound. And Drew Darby, a San Angelo lawyer who lost to Campbell in the HD-72 race four years ago, will try again. He's a former city council member and you can read up on him on the Internet, at Darby finished second in a four-candidate primary in 2002. Campbell survived late-breaking election news in 2004; a few weeks before the general election, news reports of a drunk driving arrest and of his allegedly seeking an illegitimate massage in a legitimate massage parlor got out. He still won easily, pulling 57 percent of the vote against Democrat Jeri Stone, but hasn't been tested in a GOP primary. • No surprise here: Gov. Rick Perry won the endorsement of the Texas Civil Justice League's political action committee. That's a tort reform group. • The Wall Street Journal cites a Zogby Interactive poll that has Rick Perry leading Democrat Chris Bell in a head-to-head race by 12.9 percentage points. They've got Perry at 40.1 and Bell at 27.2, closer than in their polling a month before. Kinky Friedman got 18 percent in their survey. But they polled after Hurricane Katrina and prior to Hurricane Rita. Perry's folks contend his performance during those storms will boost his standing with voters. Carole Keeton Strayhorn would beat Bell, too, but by a smaller margin; Zogby gives her 34.6 percent to the Democrat's 26 percent in a head-to-head contest. Their margin of error was +/- 2.9 percent. • Susan Combs got all but one of the Senate's Republicans to endorse her bid for comptroller. Combs, the state's ag commissioner, got everybody but Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte. He's the head of the GOP caucus in the Senate and stays out of the endorsement bidness. Everybody else on the GOP side is with Combs. • Kinky Friedman's campaign aides say he and lawyer Dick DeGuerin are still pals, but say their relationship is best described as "occasional and casual." That's a bit different from their announcement a few weeks ago, when they said DeGuerin had signed on as an unpaid campaign adviser. But that was before the Houston lawyer, who spends much of his time at his place in Marfa, showed up as the lawyer for Tom DeLay. He'll continue to help Friedman with fundraisers and stuff.