Naked City

A defector in the TRMPAC war

A campaign finance expert who has advised some of the nation's top GOP elected officials, including first President George Bush and U.S. Sen. John McCain, will be batting for state Democrats next month in a courtroom battle over money and politics.

Trevor Potter, a lifelong Republican and former commissioner and chair of the Federal Election Commission, will testify on behalf of five defeated legislative candidates who claim a political fundraising group – Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee – violated campaign finance laws in its quest to produce a GOP controlled House.

The lawsuit – a civil spin-off of an ongoing criminal probe touched off by the 2002 election upset – will be heard in a nonjury trial that begins Feb. 28. TRMPAC attorneys had sought to have Potter eliminated from the plaintiffs' witness lineup, but a ruling last week cleared the way for his testimony. The pretrial setback for TRMPAC followed arguments before Senior Retired State District Judge Joe Hart. Lawyers for the TRMPAC defendants asserted that Potter's legal expertise on federal election matters doesn't qualify him as an authority on the Texas Election Code. In fact, said attorney Terry Scarborough, referring to a transcript of Potter's Jan. 11 deposition, Potter "is guilty of not even knowing the basic definition of a campaign contribution in Texas." (Of course, TRMPAC's apparently ingenious redefinition of Texas campaign finance law is exactly what is at issue in the lawsuit.) Scarborough represents TRMPAC campaign treasurer Bill Ceverha. Attorney Mike Thompson Jr. also presented arguments on behalf of client John Colyandro.

Plaintiffs' attorney Joe Crews said Potter's experience, which includes drafting the new McCain-Feingold law on campaign finance, is so vast, "I don't know how anyone can be more qualified." Potter will be called on to bolster the lawsuit's claims that the TRMPAC defendants violated campaign finance laws by illegally soliciting or failing to disclose corporate and noncorporate contributions.

Meanwhile, Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle is continuing his criminal investigation of TRMPAC – the brainchild of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – and the group's reliance on corporate dollars to ensure GOP victories in several House races. The lawsuit and the criminal probe represent one of the biggest power plays in the history of state politics. Tension between the two parties could grow more strained in the weeks leading up to the civil trial. Some Democrats believe the GOP already fired the first warning shot on Jan. 14: The Texas Ethics Commission levied a rare $10,000 fine against one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs – former state Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin – for failing to include several in-kind contributions in her financial reports filed eight days before the 2002 election. Kitchen said the omission was inadvertent and corrected the error after TRMPAC lawyers brought it to her attention during a deposition earlier this year. The TEC typically waives or reduces fines if good-faith efforts are made to correct reporting errors. Kitchen has asked the commission to reconsider its penalty.

For better or worse, the civil trial will play out against the backdrop of a grueling legislative session in which lawmakers will be tested (again) on their ability to put politics aside and pass a school finance bill. But betting men and women are predicting that issue, too, will end up (again) in the courts.

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