TRMPAC Indictments Come Down, 'More Work' Remains
Ronnie Earle and the Travis Co. grand jury announce the initial results of the TRMPAC investigation
"This is 40 days, 41 days before the election," a defiant U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, told D.C. reporters. "You do the political math." By the Chronicle's count (and the prosecutors'), it adds up to 32 felony indictments, although other publications have arrived at totals as low as 27 and as high as 44 (the number climbs with apparently multiple transactions among the parties). But DeLay was referring to the timing of the indictments issued Sept. 21 by the Travis Co. grand jury under District Attorney Ronnie Earle, charging three Republican political consultants and eight corporations with various forms of illegal solicitation, transfer, and expenditure of corporate contributions during the 2002 state legislative campaign.
"Texas law makes it a felony," said Earle, "to both give and receive political contributions from corporations and labor unions." The defendants are accused of illegally handling corporate contributions collected and spent by the Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee on whose board DeLay served and that was modeled on his federal Americans for a Republican Majority. Late Friday, in the wake of the indictments, state Rep. Terry Keel, treasurer of the new Republican PAC Stars Over Texas, announced that the committee would be returning all corporate contributions until the courts have ruled on the question.
At the press conference announcing the indictments, which come after nearly two years of investigation by the DA's Public Integrity Unit led by Gregg Cox, Earle also offered an answer to DeLay's charge of political timing, a few weeks before the November election. Earle said that his office had been occupied for several months fighting "legally baseless appeals" and "frivolous, time-wasting open-records requests" filed by the Texas Association of Business, the initial target of the PIU investigation. "These tactics accomplished nothing," said Earle, "except to waste enormous amounts of time and delay the investigation." DeLay insists that he knows little of TRMPAC activities and that since he has not been deposed he is not a target of the investigation, but Earle commented, "Anybody who has committed a crime is a target of the investigation." Gregg Cox emphasized that this grand jury, the third panel to consider the TRMPAC and TAB allegations, "only focused on one portion of the overall investigation" due to time constraints. Cox added, "More work remains to be done."
That should not offer much comfort to DeLay. The three defendants so far include DeLay aide Jim Ellis, his chief Austin liaison in the long-running re-redistricting battle at the Capitol last year (although he then briefly attempted to evade legal action by claiming he's a stranger to Texas). Ellis is accused of the first-degree felony of money laundering in connection with $190,000 in corporate ("soft") TRMPAC funds that were contributed to the Republican National Committee and then apparently returned to Texas legislative campaigns as individual ("hard") money donations. The TRMPAC executive director, John Colyandro, a former assistant to George W. Bush political advisor Karl Rove, is also accused of money laundering, as well as 13 counts of unlawfully accepting corporate contributions. Warren RoBold, a national GOP fundraiser who solicited money for TRMPAC from several of the indicted corporations, is facing nine third-degree felony charges of "making and accepting" prohibited corporate contributions. It doesn't seem too far a stretch to speculate that, faced with potential punishments ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment (a first-degree felony, said Cox, "is punishable by five to 95 years or life in prison"), Ellis, Colyandro, and RoBold may want to suggest to investigators that they were hardly acting on their own personal whims.
For example, although DeLay claims ignorance of TRMPAC's finances, he was a headliner at committee fundraising events and specifically solicited "corporate and personal" donations from Enron Corp. during a period when TRMPAC raised $600,000 in corporate money expressly aimed at Texas legislative races. Attorneys for TRMPAC, the defendants, and DeLay continue to insist that all these transactions were legal, or that their clients believed them to be legal, but Earle said that the investigations have uncovered "the outline of an effort to use corporate contributions to control representative democracy in Texas." Another of the corporate donors to TRMPAC was Westar Energy of Kansas, which has no Texas interests but was attempting to acquire "a seat at the table" (in a company executive's phrase) on federal energy legislation, and was apparently told that access to DeLay and Committee on Energy and Commerce Chair Joe Barton, R-Ennis, would be eased by a contribution to TRMPAC.
DeLay is hardly the only one who will be worried by those potential reverberations. On Wednesday, the Statesman's Laylan Copelin reported that in the fall of 2002, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick personally accepted a $100,000 check from the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care Corp., a coalition of nursing home companies and one of the eight indicted corporations, which he then delivered to TRMPAC. That is the single largest contribution listed in the indictments, although Craddick said that the money was simply incidental to dinner conversation about tort reform. "I don't even know if I looked at it, to be truthful," he told reporters in Midland Wednesday. At the time, the 2002 election was two weeks away, and on its outcome rested Craddick's hopes of a Republican House majority and his potential election to speaker by TRMPAC-supported candidates.
Gregg Cox said the timing of these particular indictments were necessitated by the end of the current grand jury's term. He concluded, "This is a continuing investigation into allegations of criminal activity related to the 2002 Texas elections."