January 09, 2006
Bentzin and Colyandro

I know it sometimes feels like we're in a neverending election cycle, but there is an election coming up real soon. The special election to replace the outgoing State Rep. Todd Baxter in HD48 (Travis County) is a week from Tuesday, January 17. Republican contender Ben Bentzin ran unsuccessfully for State Senate against Gonzalo Barrientos in 2002, and now some of the chickens from that race have come home to roost.

In 2002, during an unsuccessful run for the state Senate, Bentzin contracted with John Colyandro, a DeLay co-defendant facing money-laundering charges connected to the 2002 elections, to produce campaign mail for his run against Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin.

Bentzin said this week that he was unaware that Colyandro also aided his 2002 campaign through his roles as executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority and as an unpaid adviser to the Texas Association of Business, two groups indicted on charges that they illegally spent corporate money in connection with campaigns.

With the business group, Colyandro was in a position to be sure that its mailer supporting Bentzin did not conflict with the campaign's message or the timing of its own mailers. At Texans for a Republican Majority, Colyandro hired a California polling firm to identify and turn out Travis County voters for three House races and Bentzin's Senate campaign.

"This is a surprise to me," Bentzin said of e-mails and other documents detailing Colyandro's efforts. "What you are suggesting is a level of focus on my race I was not aware of."

You know what they say about lying down with dogs. How out of touch did Bentzin have to be to not know what else Colyandro and the local GOP establishment were up to in 2002? Did he not hear any gossip? I could maybe believe that he didn't know some of the, ah, questionable things that Colyandro was doing, but not knowing anything? Did he ever talk to people?

More of the "I don't know" game is played in this longer article.

Joe Turner, Colyandro's lawyer, said Colyandro did nothing wrong in his dual roles working for a campaign and working with a group that was supposed to steer clear of campaigns.

"He had a lot of different clients during that period of time," Turner said. "They were totally unrelated in most instances."

Indeed, in the world of politics, it's not unusual for a consultant to work for more than one campaign. But the state's largest business organization, through four years of criminal investigation, always insisted that it followed its lawyer's warning not to coordinate its mailings with any campaign.

That the association had an outside campaign consultant helping could undercut its defense that the mailers were protected free speech intended to educate voters about issues, not political ads for candidates.


Bentzin, who is currently running for an open state House seat and has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and association President Bill Hammond said they were unaware of Colyandro's dual roles.

"I had no idea at all," Hammond said.


The association's publicist, Chuck McDonald, who produced most of the mailers, testified in a civil trial last year that Colyandro was "part of the TAB team" that met frequently in McDonald's office to discuss the creation of the mail pieces.

"He had input on discussions. . . . All (in the room) would talk to me about the message and, you know, the strategy and those kinds of things," McDonald said.


Austin lawyer Ed Shack advised the association in a written memo to avoid conferring with campaigns on the timing, message or strategy of the mailers. On Friday, Shack declined to comment.

Austin lawyer Buck Wood, who is suing the business group on behalf of Democratic candidates whom the association opposed, said Colyandro was able to time the Bentzin's campaign mailers with the TAB advertisement for the maximum effect.

"Colyandro, in effect, is coordinating with himself," Wood said.


Initially, Hammond said only officials of the association worked on its mail campaign.

Then logos of other organizations, including Colyandro's Texans for a Republican Majority, were discovered on association-designed mailers.

The business group's lawyers then acknowledged that Colyandro, among others, met frequently to help create the mailers. They denied it was problem that a Colyandro lieutenant doubled as a campaign consultant for several campaigns because they said Colyandro did not share information about the association with the campaigns.

It was discovered that Colyandro, as head of Texans for a Republican Majority, paid for a project to identify likely voters and then turned that information over for the business group's use.

Finally, after lengthy and expensive legal battles, the association inadvertently revealed its corporate donors in documents that it handed over to the Democrats' lawyers before it was indicted last fall.

Now, Colyandro's dual roles with the association and Bentzin have added a dimension just a month before a pretrial hearing in the group's case.

Wood, who is suing the association, said Colyandro's dual roles are part of the "pattern of secrecy" to circumvent the public's right to know who is supporting or opposing the candidates. "It's all about what the public knows," Wood said of the four-year controversy. "That's why we have campaign finance disclosure."

Hammond's denial is about as limp as Bentzin's. As you can see, he's got some credibility issues. Every brickbat Bentzin gets for this is well deserved.

There are two Dems running against Bentzin in this race, Kathy Rider and Donna Howard. Philip Martin at BOR is kicking off a new project to profile Democratic candidates in state races this week by covering the HD48 special election. The first chapter is here, with more to come each day this week. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 09, 2006 to Election 2006 | TrackBack

let's hope the voters of austin put this guy bentzin out of their misery once and for all. he's a dangerous radical like the guy he wants to replace (baxter) and the guy that engineered this special election (perry). he needs to be stopped now.

Posted by: d on January 9, 2006 7:35 PM