T.A.B., Mussolini: Earle Can't Tell the Difference

The DA lays into the Texas Association of Business as he tries to keep his criminal campaign finance probe alive.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (Photo By John Anderson)

An attorney for the Texas Association of Business said Tuesday he will appeal a district court ruling allowing a grand jury to continue its inquiry into the group's use of secret corporate dollars in a $1.9 million political-ad blitz. State District Judge Mike Lynch's decision leaned in District Attorney Ronnie Earle's favor, ordering T.A.B. to release the amounts and dates of its corporate contributions and the type of businesses they came from. Lynch did allow the T.A.B. to protect the actual names of its members and donors, but that's about all the lobby group got. T.A.B. lawyer Andy Taylor was not happy. "We will continue to fight these unjustified attacks to restore my clients' good name and to protect the First Amendment rights of all Texans," he said.

Judge Lynch's ruling had been expected April 3, but the court instead heard additional testimony from a T.A.B. bookkeeper and final arguments from Taylor, Earle, and Gregg Cox, the assistant district attorney who heads the office's Public Integrity Unit.

"The T.A.B.'s legal strategy is now likely to shift from the protections of the First Amendment to the protections of the Fifth Amendment" against self-incrimination, said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, which has challenged T.A.B. over its political efforts. And Earle said he was pleased with the ruling and called on the T.A.B. to "stop its vicious partisan attacks." But he may have saved his most dramatic comments for final arguments last week. If corporations are allowed to secretly bankroll political campaigns under the guise of "voter education projects," he told the court, organizations like the T.A.B. will destroy democracy.

Earle, who usually relies on his staff of attorneys to argue on behalf of the state, made a rare and impassioned plea to the court to force the T.A.B. to come clean on its ad campaign. "The Texas Election Code will be unenforceable," Earle said. "Why don't we just let [T.A.B.] appoint our officials?" The district attorney warned that T.A.B. threatens "to take us back to the future," likening the business group to the rich and powerful robber barons of the early 1900s, and to the more recent Enronization of politics. Finally, Earle recounted Mussolini's definition of fascism as the merger of state and corporate power, and suggested that T.A.B. would contribute to a similar merger in Texas unless stopped in its tracks.

Texas Association of Business attorney Andy Taylor
Texas Association of Business attorney Andy Taylor

It was the second time in two weeks that Earle fired a shot at not only the T.A.B. but the Republican-corporate agenda unfolding at the Capitol, a few blocks east of the courthouse. T.A.B.'s aggressive ad campaign is credited with the GOP takeover at the Lege and the unprecedented rise of a conservative Republican, Midland's Tom Craddick, to the House speaker's post. The grand jury probe is also trying to determine the extent of T.A.B.'s coordinated election efforts with Texans for a Republican Majority -- a political action committee formed to back Craddick's quest for the speaker's gavel -- and another group lobbying for tort reform.

Along those same lines, Texans for Public Justice has filed a complaint with the DA's office against the Republican Majority group which documents apparent discrepancies between the group's campaign disclosure records filed with the state and its filings with the Internal Revenue Service. Also last week, the Austin American-Statesman called into question a $190,000 contribution of recycled corporate money that the Republican Majority PAC made to an arm of the Republican National Committee. According to the paper, the national group then funneled the same amount to seven state legislative candidates, including Austin Reps. Jack Stick and Todd Baxter.

But it was Earle's courtroom performance that clearly most irritated Taylor, who has long accused the DA of sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. He called the Democratic DA's oration little more than political grandstanding.

Taylor has consistently stayed on message, arguing the content of the T.A.B. ad blitz was constitutionally free speech because the ads did not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. The Houston lawyer also insisted that Earle and Cox had not provided sufficient proof that T.A.B. had violated campaign finance laws and that the court should therefore quash the grand jury subpoenas seeking the business group's records and the testimony of T.A.B. President Bill Hammond, who has refused to appear before the grand jury.

For the prosecution, Cox argued that the group's campaign mailers were worded in such a way that any reasonable person could determine the ads urged them to vote for or against a candidate. He said the mailers expressly urged voters to "tell" a candidate, for example, that mediocrity has no place in state government, or that voters "need a legislator that can get Texas moving." "That's clearly a call for action." He told the court that if T.A.B. prevails, there would be nothing to stop a Colombian drug cartel from forming a corporation and dumping millions into political races.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ronnie Earle, Texas Association of Business, T.A.B., Gregg Cox, Bill Hammond, Andy Taylor, campaign finance

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