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Justice DeLayed

From the Archives
In this November 2004 article, Lou Dubose detailed how Tom DeLay spun one of Washington's most powerful fundraising networks.

The evidence Earle's investigators presented to the grand jury isn't public, but documents connected with the civil suits filed against TRMPAC lay out some of the details of the case. A deposition in one of the suits features accounts of turf disputes between TRMPAC's fundraisers in Texas and Washington, both of whom try to claim credit for corporate donations; letters and testimony in the case also reveal that the fundraisers reassured donors that their contributions were "nondisclosable." All in all, argues Earle, the evidence suggests "an illegal movement to basically steal an election by using illegal secret corporate donations to political campaigns."

Earle is referring to a watershed moment in Texas politics -- the 2002 election in which the state House of Representatives, after a carefully targeted campaign devised by DeLay and his associates, swung to the GOP. The new majority immediately proceeded to draw a new congressional district map designed to give DeLay half a dozen more Republican seats in Congress.

To engineer this fundamental shift in the state's political landscape, DeLay and one of his top aides, Jim Ellis, created a brand-new political action committee -- TRMPAC ("trim-pac"). Its initial contributions were unremarkable -- $50,000 from DeLay's leadership PAC, and $25,000 each from a Texas company and two businessmen including Bob Perry, the Houston home-builder who more recently underwrote the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack ads. But then, aware that past attempts to take control of the state House using only individual donations had come up short, TRMPAC's fundraisers went corporate. In one particularly productive day, September 9, 2002, a Republican state representative and a TRMPAC official visited six corporate offices and garnered pledges for contributions to the committee or its targeted candidates that included $22,000 from the Compass Bank and $25,000 from Reliant Energy. The fundraisers' schedule, obtained by the Texas Observer, includes an hour-by-hour account of the trip -- along with notes explaining the political favors the donors wanted.

The committee spent $1.4 million on 21 races, putting Republicans in control of the House for the first time in 130 years, and toppling the Democratic speaker who stood in the way of an off-year redistricting bill. DeLay personally worked on the maps, creating districts designed to elect five to seven more Republicans to Congress. "I'm the majority leader," he told the Washington Post, "and I want more seats."

Republicans control every statewide office in Texas, so it appeared there was no one -- other than lawyers filing civil suits -- to challenge TRMPAC's use of corporate money. But the PAC's operatives had apparently overlooked Earle, a Democrat who has indicted a Democratic attorney general for bribery, indicted a Democratic speaker for failing to report illegal gifts, and successfully prosecuted Republicans for corruption.

Some of the issues Earle is investigating were first made public by the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, which noticed an interesting discrepancy between the group's federal and state filings: Roughly $600,000 of the $1.4 million TRMPAC spent in its campaign to change the majority in the Texas House had been reported to the IRS, but not to the state's ethics commission. As it happened, the federal records showed that about $600,000 of the group's money had come from corporate contributions, clearly identified as such by the PAC's fundraisers. Texas law allows PACs to use corporate money for administrative purposes -- that is, expenses that would be incurred by any business, such as office space, phone bills, and routine mailings. But phone banks to promote candidates and similar campaign expenses don't qualify.

Ellis, the DeLay aide who helped set up TRMPAC, told the Texas Observer that there was a simple explanation for the discrepancy -- the $600,000, nearly half of the committee's total expenses, had been used exclusively for administrative purposes and therefore didn't have to be reported to the state.

Ronnie Earle doesn't buy it. The 62-year-old district attorney is approaching the end of 27 years in office and has said he would have retired were it not for this case. Earle has the somber countenance of a hanging judge and a sense of humor as arid as his West Texas origins. Investigating the TRMPAC case has been slow, he says, because it's like "watching clowns climb out of a Volkswagen. There are a lot more in there than I imagined." In fact, in addition to the indictments for making and accepting illegal corporate contributions, Earle has won grand jury indictments against Ellis and TRMPAC executive director John Colyandro for an even more serious offense -- money laundering, a first-degree felony. In September 2002, TRMPAC sent the Republican National State Elections Committee $190,000 in what internal emails suggest was "soft," or corporate, money. Three weeks later, the committee sent a total of $190,000 to candidates in Texas House races. Earle maintains that the money was moved through the national committee to conceal its illegal corporate origins; TRMPAC officials have insisted that the corresponding amounts were mere coincidence. The PAC sent the money to the national party, Ellis told the Texas Observer, because "we like what the party does."

In the wake of the indictments, DeLay has maintained that he was not involved in running TRMPAC, and that he is not a target of the inquiry. Earle, for his part, will only say that the majority leader "is not a target if he hasn't committed a crime. Whoever is guilty of a crime will be a target."

But DeLay's troubles aren't limited to Texas. In February, Shawn Martin, an assiduous reporter who covers everything from plane crashes to parish council politics for the small daily in Lake Charles, Louisiana, broke a story that quickly got the majority leader's attention. Two of DeLay's associates, Jack Abramoff and Mike Scanlon, had extracted a staggering $31 million in lobbying and consulting fees from the 800-member Coushatta Indian tribe of Louisiana -- more than General Electric spent on all of its corporate lobbying efforts in the same three-year period. The pair also had lucrative contracts with tribes in other states, bringing its total for Indian lobbying up to $45 million in less than three years.

DeLay insists that he had nothing to do with Abramoff's activities. If anyone was using his name to make money lobbying, he told reporters at a press briefing in February, he wanted them to "stop it immediately."

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