Bentzin's Bad Connection
District 48 candidate's acknowledgement that he hired political consultant John Colyandro to work on his Senate campaign in 2002 raises big legal questions
Until his surprise acknowledgement that he had hired political consultant John Colyandro to work on his Senate campaign in 2002, Ben Bentzin had never been linked, either directly or indirectly, to the GOP campaign finance scandal that touched off a wide-scale criminal probe and a round of civil litigation.
But Bentzin's voluntary admission last month to Statesman reporter Laylan Copelin raises legal questions anew about the actual scope of a corporate-funded effort to secure a GOP legislative sweep in the 2002 election cycle and, in turn, hand U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay a GOP-heavy congressional redistricting map. Four years later, Colyandro stands accused with DeLay of felony money-laundering charges for their roles in the 2002 election.
Bentzin lost his 2002 race, but he's now running to fill an open House seat in District 48 and faces Democrat Donna Howard in Tuesday's run-off. (See Naked City for more on the HD 48 race.) Ironically, Bentzin was viewed as a prized GOP recruit for the race because he had not suffered the scandalous taint that had dogged other candidates who benefited from DeLay Inc. in 2002.
The DeLay factor is widely believed to be the reason state Rep. Todd Baxter made an early departure from his HD 48 post late last year, thus avoiding a grueling re-election run and creating what was supposed to be a clear path for Bentzin to win the seat outright in a hastily called special election. But Bentzin didn't help himself with his Colyandro admission just a week before the Jan. 17 election. He finished a distant second behind Howard and barely made it into the run-off.
The recent revelation about Colyandro prompted attorney Cris Feldman who was part of a legal team that won last year's civil suit against the treasurer of DeLay's political action committee to revisit the mountains of documents in the case for clues to what had otherwise been a secretive relationship between Bentzin and Colyandro. "There are serious legal implications as to what Bentzin and Colyandro were doing together in 2002," Feldman said. "Needless to say, if they hadn't been so deceitful in the course of hiding their relationship, the legal landscape would probably look different today." Feldman said there are instances where the Colyandro-Bentzin relationship was kept under wraps:
Colyandro's sworn deposition. Feldman asked Colyandro to name the political campaigns he worked on during the 2002 election cycle. He named four campaigns, including those of Attorney General Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, but excluded any mention of Bentzin. The omission is significant because Colyandro was the point man on DeLay's political action committee Texans for a Republican Majority and he also helped the Texas Association of Business produce thousands of corporate-funded direct-mail pieces that favored certain GOP candidates, including Bentzin. Democrats have long believed that TRMPAC and TAB illegally coordinated their efforts with some of the candidates' campaigns. TAB faces felony charges of using secret corporate money to pay for its direct-mail pieces, which the group argues was protected free speech because the mailers did not expressly advocate voting for or against a specific candidate. That Colyandro produced Bentzin's campaign-mail pieces, while simultaneously helping TAB with its direct-mail efforts, could undermine TAB's defense. Elsewhere in Colyandro's deposition, the transcript shows that Feldman sought to learn the nature of a lunch appointment Colyandro had with Bentzin on Jan. 14, 2002 (as listed on his TRMPAC expense statement.) "What would you have been talking with Bentzin about?" Feldman asked. "Oh," Colyandro replied, "probably his possible candidacy. Well, at this point he would have filed his candidacy for state senate."
Bentzin's 2002 campaign filings with the Texas Ethics Commission. Bentzin told the Statesman that he paid Colyandro indirectly through Thomas Graphics, an Austin shop that printed Bentzin's direct-mail pieces as well as the mailers produced by TAB. Bentzin's campaign expenditures show that he paid Thomas Graphics $212,063.18 over five months in 2002. That's an unusually high tally for print work, campaign experts say, even for a state Senate race.
TRMPAC's voter ID and advocacy. Three weeks before the election, Colyandro, through TRMPAC, hired Contact America Inc., a California telemarketing firm with ties to DeLay, to identify GOP and independent voters in 15 legislative districts in Texas, including Travis Co. Corporate dollars paid for that effort while noncorporate dollars paid for a series of follow-up calls the firm made on behalf of 20 GOP House candidates. As part of that effort, Colyandro sent the California firm a last-minute advocacy script on Bentzin's Senate campaign. In its subsequent filings with the Ethics Commission, TRMPAC reported these phone calls as in-kind expenditures for each of the candidates except Bentzin. Similarly, Bentzin did not report the in-kind contribution on his campaign reports.
Colyandro would not comment on any payment arrangement he might have had with Bentzin. "Any questions involving Bentzin's disclosure would have to be directed to him," he said. "He had a responsibility to file a report with the Ethics Commission I was not involved in any way whatsoever with his campaign reporting." Bentzin did not respond to Chronicle phone calls before press time, but in a Statesman-sponsored debate with Howard this week, Bentzin defended his indirect payments to Colyandro through the printer as a "soup-to-nuts" method of handling all aspects of his campaign mailings. Of the $212,000-plus Bentzin paid Thomas Graphics, however, well over half of the payments were for "publicity," while the remaining expenses covered printing and mailing the bulk of services that Thomas Graphics provides.
Colyandro also referred questions regarding TRMPAC to Austin attorney Terry Scarborough, who represented the group's treasurer, Bill Ceverha, in a civil trial last year. Scarborough said he was just as surprised as anyone when he read that Colyandro had worked for Bentzin in 2002. But he said he's not certain whether Contact America ever made the advocacy calls for the Bentzin campaign. "It's clear that there was some discussion but [TRMPAC accountant] Russell Anderson does not believe that we actually did get-out-the-vote calls in Bentzin's campaign," he said. "But if that turns out to be the case, you're not going to get much debate from me that they should have been reported."