The Austin Chronicle

Tomstown Hits the Fan

By Michael King, September 24, 2004, News

On Tuesday, the other shoe finally fell on Ronnie Earle's Texans for a Republican Majority investigation, and it's a size 32EEE. That's the number of felony indictments brought by a Travis Co. grand jury against Republican operatives involved in the 2002 TRMPAC election effort, most notably three players central to the fundraising efforts for Republican state legislative candidates.

TRMPAC executive director John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, a chief aide to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, were both indicted for money laundering, a first degree felony. Warren RoBold, a national GOP fundraiser, and Colyandro were indicted on multiple counts of accepting illegal corporate contributions (a third degree felony).* Eight out-of-state corporations were also indicted on charges of making illegal political contributions – corporate or labor union contributions to political candidates are prohibited under Texas law.

Attorneys for TRMPAC and the GOP have argued that, as they see it, the disputed contributions – spent on polling, telephone banks, voter identification, fundraising – were for "administrative expenses" permitted under Texas law. The money-laundering charge apparently stems from a $190,000 sum that was first collected from corporations, delivered by Ellis to the Republican National Committee, and then apparently transferred by the RNC to legislative campaigns. The corporations indicted include Questerra Corp., Westar Energy (central to a different DeLay scandal), Diversified Collection Services, Sears, Roebuck and Co., the Williams Companies, Bacardi USA (another longtime Friend of Tom), Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, and the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care.

In a Tuesday press conference, Earle said that the investigation is ongoing, though he did not say whether further indictments may be forthcoming. Questions have been raised about the role of DeLay in creating or directing TRMPAC, and about any relationship between the PAC and House Speaker Tom Craddick. Campaign reformers from Public Citizen of Texas, Texans for Public Justice, and Common Cause of Texas released a statement calling for Craddick to step down from the speakership until the investigation is complete.

"The dark cloud over Tom Craddick's speakership just got darker," said Craig McDonald, director of TPJ, which filed the initial complaint leading to the investigation. "Today's indictments are likely just the tip of the iceberg. The lawlessness in the 2002 elections, which resulted in Tom Craddick's election as speaker and Tom DeLay's gerrymandering, appears to have been widespread and coordinated among several politicians and PACs. ... The Texas House should prepare to select a permanent replacement speaker if TRMPAC operatives are convicted or if Craddick himself is indicted. Stealing elections is the ultimate crime against democracy."

With the number of indictments and the extensive corporate involvement, comparisons will inevitably be made to the Sharpstown banking scandal that rocked the Legislature in the Seventies. Longtime Capitol observer and political consultant Tony Proffitt told the Capitol newsletter GalleryWatch that if the indictments hold, they could have the sort of political "fallout" of the Sharpstown scandal that transformed state government and prefigured the rise of the new Republican dominance. Said Proffitt of the upcoming November elections, "There's no question that in some toss-up races, this could become the wedge issue in winning or losing."

*Oops! The following correction ran in our October 1, 2004 issue: Last week we reported in "Naked City" ("Tomstown Hits the Fan") that "TRMPAC executive director John Colyandro; Jim Ellis, a chief aide to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land; and national GOP fundraiser Warren RoBold were all indicted for money laundering, a first degree felony." Colyandro and Ellis were indeed indicted for money laundering, but the indictments against RoBold do not include money laundering, but rather several counts of illegal solicitation and acceptance of prohibited corporate contributions. The Chronicle regrets the error. This story has been corrected from its original publication.

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