The Austin Chronicle

The DA Makes a Deal

They stole the Lege – will we get more in return than a sermon?

By Michael King, December 17, 2004, News

"Defendant further acknowledges that the basis for the Texas prohibition against corporate contributions is that they constitute a genuine threat to democracy."

That's the penultimate sentence in the agreement signed last week between Diversified Collection Services Inc. and Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle, allowing the company to be conditionally cleared of the felony charge of illegal corporate contributions – specifically the sum of $50,000 – to the now-defunct political action committee known as Texans for a Republican Majority. On the face of it, it's an odd note to strike in a criminal dismissal agreement, and the lawyers to other targets of the investigation were quick to snort their disapproval. "This is a very suspicious agreement," Austin attorney Joe Turner told the Statesman's Laylan Copelin, complaining about the "political stuff" in the document.

Turner's suspicion is understandable, as he represents the rather more heavily indicted former TRMPAC director John Colyandro, and the conventional sections of the DCS agreement note forebodingly, "The Defendant will cooperate with the State of Texas in its prosecution of any other indicted person for any offense related to the corporate contribution made by the Defendant." The DA further attests he's letting the company slide because the 50-grand payoff was apparently "a single incident [and not] a continuing course of conduct," and that it was made to TRMPAC "on the basis of false and misleading information provided by the fundraiser that solicited the contribution."

Reportedly the fundraiser in question was not Colyandro, but Warren Robold, who operated out of D.C. Robold's attorney, the indomitable Houstonian Rusty Hardin, was also quick to dismiss Earle's "personal philosophical views" in the matter of Texas campaign finance law. Turner and Hardin may have different clients, but they agree on one thing: that the Travis Co. DA has "a gun to the head" of the eight corporations (now less one) indicted in the TRMPAC case, and presumably the cooperation of said hostages to justice might reflect poorly upon the legal prospects of Turner and Hardin's respective clients.

The D.C. and Houston connections have additional significance, of course, in that those are also the home theatres of none other than U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Robold represented not only TRMPAC but its national predecessor, DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority. If you've followed these not very complex prosecutorial machinations thus far, the question inevitably becomes: If Colyandro and Robold (and TRMPAC treasurer Bill Ceverha) should fall, can DeLay be far behind?

Pay Attention, Class

There are other matters addressed in the brief agreement, including the company's assurances that it will not only go and sin feloniously no more, but it will underwrite "non-partisan, balanced, and publicly informative ... educational programs related to the role of corporations in American democracy." That's a touching ambition, even for a hardball prosecutor; an unretouched portrait of the true role of corporations in American democracy, alas, is a good deal more than we can wish for. It will be plenty if Earle and Diversified – and the Williams Cos., and Sears Roebuck, and Westar Energy, and the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, and the rest of the corporate indictees – help fill in the blanks on the true role of corporations in the Texas legislative elections of November of 2002.

In that regard, it's useful to recall where we are politically. Thanks at least in part to the money provided by the TRMPAC 8, along with another $2 million or so funneled through the Texas Association of Business, the Republicans seized dominant control of the Texas House and the Legislature, and were able to ram through reactionary policies that otherwise might have been held at bay or at least diluted. On a broader scale, at DeLay's insistence they redrew the Texas congressional map for a second time, effectively disenfranchising millions of Texas voters, many of them minorities, in the process, and strengthening DeLay's stranglehold on the U.S. House. (Indeed, last week House Speaker Dennis Hastert let it be known that he will bring no bill to the floor that does not enjoy majority Republican support, a DeLay strategy that effectively silences the elected representatives of at least half the population.)

In other words, the ill-gotten rewards of TRMPAC and TAB's corporate assault on democracy remain very much in the hands of the perpetrators, while the rest of us wait to see if the prosecutors' methodical pursuit of the guilty results in anything more than earnest words and "educational programs."

Cut to the Chase

So it's all well and good for the DA to empathize with the predicament of Diversified, which told prosecutors it would suffer "disproportionate harm" if convicted, by losing existing and future contracts to collect defaulted debts on behalf of federal, state, and municipal agencies, "thereby causing layoffs and other reductions in the labor force employed by Defendant." That lamentable prospect is particularly poignant in light of the fact that all around us, thousands of state, county, and municipal workers, not to mention teachers and staff of beleaguered school districts, are already suffering the effects of plenty of layoffs and constricted fortunes thanks to the slash-and-burn budgetary policies of the 78th Legislature.

That body's all-too-familiar successors will soon be arriving on our doorstep, with a mandate from the governor to slash and burn just a little bit more – excepting, of course, his personal slush fund for mendicant corporations, who need to be persuaded to do business in Texas with welfare payments and tax exemptions, leaving plenty of profit left over to underwrite campaign war chests for Texas politicians. Considering the process too closely can make one more than a little dizzy.

So one down, seven to go – if the Diversified deal, and any subsequent arrangement, lead to some substantial justice in the Case of the Purloined Statehouse, then perhaps "the community would be better served by resolving the case through this agreement." But if the gun to those corporate heads turns out to be loaded with nothing but blanks, sponsored homilies on corporate responsibility will be small compensation for felony theft of democracy. end story

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.