The Austin Chronicle

TRMPAC Finally Lands in Court

By Amy Smith and Jordan Smith, March 4, 2005, News

If nothing else, the closely watched campaign finance trial that opened this week in state district court could force Texas lawmakers to seek meaningful reforms and clarifications in the fuzzy laws governing the peculiar world of money and politics. Perhaps they'd like a little assistance from national campaign finance expert Trevor Potter, if the Legislature can forgive the lifelong Republican for testifying on behalf of five Democrats suing three associates of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

DeLay's political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority – familiarly known as TRMPAC – stands accused of skirting campaign finance laws to ensure GOP victories in the 2002 legislative elections. The trial opened this week before visiting state District Judge Joe Hart, called out of retirement to preside. TRMPAC played a major fundraising role in the 2002 effort, drawing on large contributions from unidentified corporate donors, and in turn helped produce a GOP landslide that catapulted Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, to the House Speaker's post.

TRMPAC treasurer Bill Ceverha is the first of three potential defendants to face allegations brought by the five plaintiffs who lost tight House races against Republican candidates who benefited from TRMPAC's involvement. One plaintiff, former Austin Rep. Ann Kitchen, who lost to now-sophomore Rep. Todd Baxter, was in the courtroom Tuesday taking copious notes on Potter's testimony.

Ceverha's attorney, Terry Scarborough, has framed his client's defense with a sour-grapes motif designed to show that Kitchen and company have little ground to stand on except their own unhappiness over the outcome of the election. Additionally, Ceverha, a former state representative from Dallas, has sought to distance himself from the day-to-day operations leading up to the election. He testified Monday that his treasurer's role was more that of a figurehead, rather than a strategist who might look for ways to circumvent state election laws, as the plaintiffs allege.

The civil lawsuit coincides with an ongoing criminal investigation by Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle into whether Republican PACs violated campaign finance laws. Ceverha's one-time co-defendants in the civil lawsuit, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, have been indicted on felony charges stemming from the TRMPAC election project. Earle's probe also centers on Craddick's role in the effort. Craddick had been subpoenaed to testify this week, but attorneys on both sides brokered a deal that will keep him out of the courtroom. In exchange, Craddick's office admitted to distributing $152,000 in checks to candidates.

The trial, which is expected to extend through this week, also featured testimony from Bill Hammond, executive director of the Texas Association of Business. Like TRMPAC, the state's largest business lobby group also played a heavy hand in the 2002 campaigns.

On Tuesday morning, plaintiff's lawyer Joe Crews questioned Potter, the plaintiff's expert witness, on the intricacies of campaign finance laws before zeroing in on one of the key elements of the case – that TRMPAC sent $190,000 in corporate money to the Republican National Committee, which in turn sent separate donations totaling the same amount to seven GOP House candidates. That circular process, Potter said, "raises obvious questions of whether this was money laundering."

Before the trial, TRMPAC lawyers had unsuccessfully sought to prevent Potter's testimony at trial, arguing that he lacked expertise in Texas laws. Potter has advised some of the nation's top GOP elected officials, including first President George Bush and U.S. Sen. John McCain. He is a former commissioner and chair of the Federal Election Commission, and he drafted the new federal McCain-Feingold law on campaign finance.

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