When the Texas Association of Business isn't organizing for tort reform at the Capitol, it's filing -- or defending -- lawsuits at the courthouse. T.A.B. is in the middle of a campaign-finance brouhaha that has taken on a life of its own. In the four months since the November election, the business group has become the target of a grand-jury investigation and the defendant in two separate civil lawsuits filed by four losing House of Representative candidates. The business lobby group has responded with two lawsuits of its own in U.S. District Court and promises to appeal any ruling that doesn't go its way -- all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Here's a handy summary of the five-way legal battle:
Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle initiated a probe to determine if T.A.B. violated campaign-finance laws when it used unidentified corporate dollars to pay for 4 million direct-mail pieces in 24 legislative races. The probe was initiated after complaints filed by the Texas Consumer Association, Common Cause Texas, and Public Citizen's state office.
Civil Lawsuit 1
Former state House Reps. Ann Kitchen of Austin and Debra Danburg of Houston and House candidate Danny Duncan, all Democrats, were targets of T.A.B.'s negative campaign mailers that T.A.B. claims were not political expenditures but "voter education." Kitchen, for example, was portrayed as an anti-business legislator who opposed President Bush's "no child left behind" education policy. Other mailers sent to households in the same district described Todd Baxter as a go-to guy for the business community. The three Democrats, represented by Austin attorneys David Richards, Joe K. Crews, and Cris Feldman, have sued T.A.B. on grounds it violated campaign-finance laws.
Civil Lawsuit 2
House candidate James Sylvester of Austin, also a Democrat, was chided in T.A.B. mailers for failing to timely file campaign records with the state; he lost to Jack Stick in the newly created District 50 in northeast Travis Co. Represented by Austin lawyer Buck Wood, Sylvester has filed suit on the same grounds as Kitchen, et al.
Civil Lawsuit 3
"Don't even think about it." That was the word from T.A.B. to the remaining losing House candidates -- 13 Democrats and one Libertarian. The group filed the forum-shopping suit in an attempt to smoke out potential plaintiffs, according to T.A.B. attorney Andy Taylor. Renea Hicks, who represents the Democrats in the bunch, says, "It's essentially inappropriate to sue somebody [in advance] who hasn't sued." Is it common practice? "It's only common with people who do frivolous lawsuits."
Civil Lawsuit 4
T.A.B. sued District Attorney Ronnie Earle in an attempt to derail the DA's "unwarranted" grand-jury investigation, claiming it violated the business group's right to free speech. T.A.B. went straight to federal court on this one, and the judge kicked it back to district court, where Judge Mike Lynch heard oral arguments earlier this week. Attorneys Andy Taylor of Houston and Roy Minton of Austin represent the T.A.B.