The Austin Chronicle

T.A.B. Takes Legal Offensive

By Amy Smith, February 7, 2003, News

An attorney for the Texas Association of Business will ask a judge next week to throw out one of two lawsuits filed against the lobbying group in the wake of last fall's election. A summary judgment hearing is scheduled for Feb. 13 in connection with a suit filed by James Sylvester, a Democrat who lost to Republican Jack Stick in Austin's Dist. 50 House Race. Sylvester accuses T.A.B. of violating election laws by using unidentified corporate money to pay for mailers targeting the race. The business group endorsed Stick in the contest, but claims its mailers weren't subject to financial disclosure laws because the campaign material did not encourage recipients to vote for or against either candidate.

Sylvester, represented by Austin lawyer Buck Wood, filed his lawsuit separate from another brought against the T.A.B. by four former incumbents, including ousted Rep. Ann Kitchen. Last week, newly appointed Travis Co. District Judge Patrick Keel delayed a decision on a key Sylvester motion pending his ruling on T.A.B.'s request for summary judgment. Sylvester had sought to force the business group to identify the donors who covered the $2 million cost of 4 million campaign mailers in 24 key legislative races. T.A.B. is credited with (or blamed for) helping the GOP capture control in the House and Senate.

T.A.B. lawyer Andy Taylor, for his part, is betting on a 2002 U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to clear the business group of liability in the civil cases and short-circuit an ongoing criminal investigation by the Travis Co. district attorney's office. That ruling favored the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a Mississippi case stemming from TV ads the chamber had aired in connection with the state Supreme Court election. Those ads, the 5th Circuit decided, did not explicitly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, and therefore did not violate election laws.

Based on that ruling, Taylor is predicting a victory for T.A.B. "We've got some sore losers, some defeated candidates who don't like the law," he said. "But if people want to debate whether it's good public policy to compel disclosure of the contributors behind advertisements, that's a debate that needs to be carried out in the Legislature, not the courts."

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