July 12, 2003
Craddick overstepped, court rules

Missed this yesterday:

AUSTIN -- Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick overstepped his authority by dispatching state troopers to search for Democratic state representatives who bolted in May to kill a redistricting bill, a state district judge ruled Thursday.

State District Judge Charles Campbell ruled that a state government code defining the role and limits of Texas Department of Public Safety officers superseded a House rule employed by Craddick to hunt down the legislators.


"Based on this judge's ruling, what (Craddick) did was illegal," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who sought a court ruling on whether it was legal for state troopers to be used in the search for the "Killer D's."

"Basically what the judge is saying is exactly what the Killer D's had been saying all along -- the (DPS) needs to be chasing criminals and not doing the political work of the speaker," said Burnam, one of the Democrats who went to Ardmore.


In his ruling, Campbell, a former Democratic Texas Court of Criminal Appeals justice, said Craddick relied on a House rule that allows for the return of absent lawmakers, including arrests, by "the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose."

But Campbell said that reliance on that rule to involve DPS troopers was "unfounded" because it was superseded by a section of the state Government Code that "defines, and therefore limits, the role of DPS" to law enforcement and crime prevention.

Although the ruling appears to limit legislative leaders' ability to hunt for lawmakers who break quorum, it was not immediately clear Thursday night whether Campbell's ruling would have any practical effect on the ongoing redistricting fight.

I'm not actually sure that I like this ruling. The problems I had with the hunt for the Killer D's was not the use of DPS per se, but the way DPS went about conducting its search. In particular, I take issue with their attempts to call in federal agencies like Homeland Security, regardless of whether they represented their reasons to DHS accurately or not, and with the zealousness that they displayed in questioning some of the lawmakers' families. I believe some limits need to be clearly set, and that those limits need to be stricter than the limits of a criminal investigation, but I don't have any quarrel with the idea of using DPS to try and locate wayward lawmakers or to escort them to the Capital once they've been find.

Speaking of the feds, Congressional Republicans have turned down a request by Democrats for information regarding which federal agencies were involved in the hunt for the Killer D's.

Democrats want to know whether federal agencies helped chase down more than 50 Texas Democratic legislators who left the state for four days in May to kill a Republican-sponsored congressional redistricting bill.

Republicans didn't outright reject the information request sponsored by Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston. Instead, the House Judiciary Committee voted 19-15 on party lines to approve the measure "adversely," meaning its passage came with the Republicans' clear disapproval and has little chance of being debated by the full House.

This is really getting silly. With DHS claiming that it acted in good faith, and with a Travis County grand jury clearing DPS of wrongdoing in destroying its records of the search, the odds at this point of a smoking gun turning up are pretty damn slim. Why continue being obstructive? It just feeds the perception that there must be something worth covering up.

UPDATE: Did I speak too soon? The FAA has just announced the results of its internal investigation, and guess what: Twelve of its employees knew they were aiding a partisan inquiry.

Federal Aviation Administration employees knew they were involved in a partisan matter when they helped House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other officials search for runaway Democratic Texas legislators in May, the Transportation Department concluded in a report released Friday.

The report said 13 FAA personnel, including air traffic controllers in Fort Worth, participated May 12 in an effort to track a plane belonging to former state House Speaker Pete Laney, D-Hale Center. The report stated that those controllers knew they were looking for a politician involved in a partisan battle.


Democrats have complained that DPS was heavy-handed in its search for the runaways and that Craddick, Gov. Rick Perry and DeLay, R-Sugar Land, improperly sought federal agency assistance in getting the legislators back to the Capitol. By the night of May 12, most had turned up in Ardmore, Okla., outside DPS jurisdiction.

The report on the FAA, written by the Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General, was sent to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of the Washington Democrats who has been pushing for federal investigations into the matter.Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta called for an internal inquiry shortly after learning that DeLay's staff got information on Laney's plane from the FAA and passed the information on to Texas officials.

Mineta said through a spokesman Friday that he would quickly pursue policy changes to avoid such incidents in the future. "The secretary and the FAA administrator concur with the findings of the inspector general's report," said Transportation spokesman Lenny Alcivar. "At the secretary's direction, the department has already taken a series of steps that address the issues identified in the report as areas for improvement."

The measures include clearer internal guidelines for processing flight information requests from government officials and law enforcement agencies, he said.

According to the report, the FAA's chief congressional liaison officer, David Balloff, worked with DeLay's staff to track down Laney's plane but did not ask the purpose of the inquiry.

Balloff said he was unaware he was getting involved in a politically charged manhunt until he read newspaper reports the next day. He told the inspector general's office that he felt he had been "used" by DeLay's office.

But the report said that Balloff initially was evasive when superiors asked him about his work with DeLay, and didn't detail it until more than a week later.

Okay, then. Maybe we do need to know everything about everyone who was involved in this. Maybe there is something there for the Republicans to cover up.

As for the FAA report itself, what's the bottom line?

Rep. Martin Frost -- a Dallas Democrat who might be forced from office under some of the redistricting plans being pushed by DeLay and other Republicans -- called the report "a damning indictment of Tom DeLay for treating the FAA as an arm of the Republican Party."

DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said the Transportation Department's report proves that the majority leader did nothing wrong.

"The report confirms what we've said for weeks," Grella said. "Our office inquired as to the location of some wanted legislators, which was public information. Accusations of improper activity are as false today as when the Democrats first made them."

The Transportation Department's report points out that at least some of the information sought on Laney's plane could have been obtained through commercial Internet sites.

Some, apparently, but not all. It'd be nice to know what non-public data was given to DeLay. I don't see a link to the report itself on the DOT's news page, so whether the non-public data that DeLay received from the FAA was relevant and useful to his request remains a mystery to me.

UPDATE: The state will appeal this ruling.

State Attorney General Greg Abbott on Friday said Campbell's ruling is inconsistent with state law and that Campbell did not get input from the state before issuing the ruling.


Abbott said the state constitution gives the House powers to enact rules to govern its work and gives the DPS power to enforce state law.

I think Abbott has a good argument here, and won't be surprised if his appeal is granted.

UPDATE: Here is the official DOT Inspector General report for your perusal. Thanks to Josiah for sending me the link.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 12, 2003 to Killer D's | TrackBack