The treasurer of a political committee formed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay violated Texas election code by not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and expenditures, a civil judge ruled today.
State District Judge Joe Hart, in a letter to attorneys outlining his ruling, said the money should have been reported to the Texas Ethics Commission.
The ruling means Bill Ceverha, treasurer of the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee, will have to pay just under $200,000 to be divided among five losing Democratic candidates in 2002 legislative races. Those candidates brought the lawsuit against Ceverha.
Ceverha’s lawyers argued in court earlier this year that the group operated legally despite the confusion of state campaign funding laws.
Three of DeLay’s top fund-raisers and eight corporations were indicted in the criminal investigation in September. Ceverha has not been charged in the criminal case.
The lawsuit was not also brought against the criminal defendants because of the pending criminal trial. They may well get sued later.
The Democrats who sued TRMPAC claimed Ceverha violated the state election law designed to keep elections free from “the taint of corporate cash.”
The Democrats alleged that some $600,000 in corporate money was illegally used to influence Texas House races in 2002, the year Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 130 years. Those victories propelled Craddick, the longest-serving House member, to the speaker’s post.
Later, Craddick and DeLay pushed a redistricting bill through the Legislature that ultimately gave the GOP a commanding advantage in the state’s congressional delegation.
Corporate money was spent on such expenses as political research, polling, mailing, fund-raising and conferences, the plaintiffs alleged.
The defendants contended all corporate money was legally spent on administrative purposes.
Hart, in his letter, said the expenditures were made “in connection with a campaign for an elective office” and fit within the statutory definition of “campaign expenditure.”
That’s huge, because the defense in the criminal case is that the money was spent on “administrative” expenses, not “campaign” expenses. A ruling for Ceverha would likely have led to a dismissal of at least some of the charges against the criminal defendants. The actual ruling strengthens the prosecution’s case against them. Maybe this will increase the pressure on them to try to cut a deal.
I’ve included statements from the Texans for Public Justice and from Charles Soechting beneath the fold. Thanks to Jesse Lee for being first out of the box on this one.
UPDATE: Marc Olivier has more.
(Austin, TX) In the first civil lawsuit alleging misuse of corporate money in the Texas 2002 state elections to go to trial, Travis County District Judge Joseph Hart today ruled that Tom DeLay?s Texas political committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) violated Texas campaign law when it failed to disclose more than a half-million dollars in corporate contributions.
Judge Hart awarded $196,660 to the five plaintiffs, all Democratic candidates who lost in 2002.
In reaction to the ruling, Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice said,
“Today’s ruling is bad news for Tom DeLay and his TRMPAC cronies. This ruling draws blood from the financial heart of DeLay’s corrupt political empire. This is likely to be but the first of many guilty verdicts against TRMPAC and its leaders.
Today’s judgment confirms that TRMPAC blatantly violated Texas election law. It’s the first step in holding TRMPAC’s leaders accountable for the corruption they levied on Texas’ politics.
This ruling will hasten the end of DeLay’s white-collar crimes against democracy. It sends a strong message to all the Tom DeLays who act as if they are above the law: Don’t mess with Texas elections.”
Texans for Public Justice filed the original criminal complaint against TRMPAC’s 2002 fundraising activities with Ronnie Earle, the Travis County District Attorney. Multiple criminal indictments are pending against three of Tom DeLay’s aides who carried out TRMPAC’s activities. A grand jury investigation into TRMPAC is ongoing.
Background on TRMPAC Civil Suit:
The plaintiffs in the civil suit (Paul Clayton, et al v. Bill Ceverha & Texans for a Republican Majority) were five Democratic candidates for the Texas House (one incumbent, 4 challengers) who were defeated by TRMPAC-supported Republicans in 2002 general elections. The defendants were TRMPAC and its Treasurer, William Ceverha, of Dallas. Both John Colyandro and Jim Ellis had been named as defendants in the suit, but the claims against them were temporarily abated due to their ongoing criminal prosecutions. Colyandro faces multiple felony criminal indictments for his role in raising corporate money for TRMPAC and he and Ellis are under felony indictment for laundering corporate money through RNSEC.
Plaintiffs charged TRMPAC and its Treasurer with raising and spending approximately $600,000 in corporate contributions for political activities which is strictly prohibited under Texas law. (Including $190,000 in corporate funds that TRMPAC sent to the RNSEC that was returned in direct campaign contributions to TRMPAC endorsed Republican House candidates.) The prohibited activities included candidate recruitment, fundraising activities, polling, message development and voter identification efforts. Plaintiffs also charged that the defendants failed to report the contributions and expenditures in their Texas campaign disclosure reports. Plaintiffs sought approximately $1.2 million in damages (twice the amount of the illegal contributions.)
Tom DeLay was intimately involved in the entire TRMPAC operation. He served as head of TRMPAC’s advisory board, admits that TRMPAC was created on his initiative, and that he raised money for TRMPAC. Documents show that DeLay attended multiple fundraising events where corporate dollars were solicited for TRMPAC.
STATEMENT BY CHARLES SOECHTING
Judge Hart’s landmark decision that TRMPAC failed to report $532,000 in corporate contributions makes two things very clear: there was an illegal conspiracy in 2002 to break Texas law, and Tom DeLay and Tom Craddick were at the center of that conspiracy.
Everything since then — the takeover of state government by extremist politicians paid for by corporate interests, the unprecedented mid-decade redistricting to give the GOP seats it couldn’t win at the ballot box, the failure of Texas Republicans to address the state’s most pressing public policy challenges — flows from the illegal conspiracy directed by Tom DeLay and Tom Craddick.
Bankrupt public schools? Eligible children stripped of their health insurance? Soaring college tuition rates? No ethics reform? The highest homeowners’ insurance rates in the nation? Blame it on the illegal conspiracy directed by Tom DeLay and Tom Craddick.