February 10, 2004
An interview with Fred Lewis

Fred Lewis is one of the people behind Clean Up Texas Politics, a nonpartisan site that tracks and shines a light on the influence of big money in elections. There's been a lot of activity to keep them busy lately, and the real election season hasn't even started yet. I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about what he does and what we have to look forward to this year. Click on the More link for the full text of the interview.

CK: Who is CleanUpTexasPolitics and how are you different from other watchdog groups like Texans for Public Justice?

FL: Clean Up Texas Politics is part of Campaigns for People, a non-profit that educates the public and builds coalitions for campaign and ethics reform in Texas. We are different than other groups in that we work only on state campaign and ethics reform, have Republican, Democratic and Independent board members and supporters, draft reform legislation because of our legal expertise, and focus on educating and building diverse coalitions for reform. We built the last reform coalition, the Show us the Money Coalition, of 62 groups that successfully promoted comprehensive campaign disclosure through the 2003 Texas legislature. We work closely with Texans for Public Justice and many other groups of all stripes and backgrounds.

CK: The Texas Ethics Commission is not known for its strong enforcement powers (see this article, for example). What kind of effect are you hoping to have?

FL: We helped rewrite the Commission's laws in 2003 to give it more power but much more needs to be done. Basically, the agency needs to be completely restructured to remove the board members from the enforcement process and the agency's budget needs to be increased substantially and removed from the legislative process. One reform that would help would be to require a specific number of random audits of campaigns, which the Legislature has resisted in the past.

CK: Why has there been such a focus on corporate money in campaigns recently, especially here in Texas? Is this a bigger issue now than before?

FL: Making or accepting corporate contributions is a 3rd degree felony in Texas and has been illegal since 1905. The prohibition has been followed generally until the 2002 election. If corporate contributions are allowed to continue in Texas, they will become a tidewave and will overwhelm the political process and undermine democracy. Our web site goes into more detail.

CK: How big an effect does an influx of corporate money have on campaigns? Given how favorably the State House lines were drawn for Republicans in 2001, did corporate money really have much effect in the 2002 elections?

FL: Corporate money likely had a significant impact on the 2002 Texas state House races. In 2002, the Texas Association of Business (TAB) and Texans for a Republican Majority(TRM) spent money in the general election on the 21 most competitive state house races. They won 16 of these races and 11 of the 16 were close, with the TAB/TRM candidate winning with 50-60% of
the vote.

In the 11 races, TAB spent on average $82,000 per race on corporate-funded direct mail pieces and TRM spent, directly and indirectly, on average $62,000 per race. One hundred and forty four thousand dollars is a substantial amount for competitive Texas house races, which usually cost between $200,000-$500,000. If 1/2 of these 11 TRM/TAB candidates had lost, the Texas House would likely have been quite different. More information is here.

CK: As you know, Travis County DA Ronnie Earle has been conducting a grand jury investigation of the Texas Association of Business (TAB) for its campaign contributions in 2002. They've fought the investigation and related efforts to discover their members' names tooth and nail, to the point where some of its members were briefly jailed for contempt. Why are they fighting so hard? What might this investigation reveal?

FL: The investigation will reveal whether TAB was spending corporate money to underwrite its political activities, including electioneering ads, which is illegal, or using these funds for true issue ads, which are legal. TAB claims it is protecting the First Amendment rights of its members to anonymity. The DA, however, isn't requesting the names of its members but documents of its political activities .

CK: In addition to the criminal investigation, there is a lawsuit pending against TAB by four Democrats who were defeated in 2002 and who claim that illegal corporate money raised by TAB contributed to their losses. Is this related in any way to the criminal case? How likely is it that these plaintiffs will get relief from the courts?

FL: There are several civil lawsuits, two against TAB and one against TRM. The plaintiffs and reformers like myself think the lawsuits involve serious matters; the defendants disagree. It will likely be resolved by a jury.

CK: Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for Tom DeLay, recently said "It's wrong and unethical to link legislative activity to campaign contributions." How do you respond to that?

FL: We believe it's wrong to provide better treatment to large contributors, who make up .1% of voters, than the general public because it undermines majority rule. The evidence is overwhelming that large contributors get something for their money. We published a book of interviews of former Texas state legislators who admit favortism (Too Much Money Is Not Enough by Kinch) and there are Congressional interviews as well that make the same point.

In several surveys of large donors, most admit to seeking favors and often getting them. In a devastating brief in support of McCain-Feingold filed by a business group, the Committee for Economic Development, the group stated that corproate soft money contributions weren't about free speech but either the business community buying favorable policies or being squeezed to give contributions. See here for more.

CK: What effect, if any, will the McCain/Feingold law have on statewide campaigns starting this year?

FL: McCain-Feingold extends to federal candidates, federal PACs, and state parties' activities on behalf of federal candidates. No more corporate soft money is allowed essentially to these entities as to federal elections in Texas. As a result, the state parties and state officeholders are likely to try to make up for the now banned federal soft money with state corporate money schemes to attempt to evade our state prohibition. While these activities are questionable, if not illegal, Texas state law needs to be tightened in similar ways to McCain-Feingold. Otherwise, corporate money is likely to flood Texas state elections even more than in 2002.

CK: What new tricks and loopholes can we look forward to seeing used in 2004? What's the next frontier in questionable campaign fundraising?

FL: We are likely to see more of what we saw in 2002: corporate special interest monies in state elections. These sources will likely claim that they are broadcasting "issue ads", supporting only PAC and party "administrative expenses", and not sending corporate money roundabout to candidates through slush funds. Also, we may see state parties and state officeholders in Texas try to raise corporate money, and evade the corporate prohibition, to replace the federal corporate soft money banned under McCain-Feingold.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 10, 2004 to Show Business for Ugly People | TrackBack