Here’s our first look at the contribution records that the Texas Association of Business didn’t want us to see.
Documents released in a civil lawsuit Friday show that Texas Association of Business officials were trying to influence the outcome of state House races when they ran a $1.7 million “voter education project” paid for with corporate money.
“Of the nine incumbents … we went after, seven were defeated. This is huge news,” a TAB executive said in a 2002 e-mail the day after the group helped Republicans win control of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction.
TAB officials have claimed that their corporate spending was meant to educate voters, not affect elections.
The records were released in a lawsuit brought by losing Austin Democrat James Sylvester. TAB had fought release of the records, and the Texas Supreme Court sat on the appeal for 17 months before ruling against TAB on June 10.
TAB lawyer Andy Taylor said the organization did not violate the state law banning the use of corporate money to influence elections because none of its direct mail or television advertising ever advocated the election or defeat of a candidate.
He said the fact that TAB executives wanted to influence the elections is irrelevant to the case.
“On no occasion did we ever use words of ‘vote for’ or ‘vote against’ in these ads,” Taylor said. “It’s the content of the speech, not the intention of the speaker, that counts for First Amendment purposes.”
Taylor said TAB was trying to “shed light on candidates’ positions on the issues.”
But plaintiff attorney Randall “Buck” Wood said the documents show TAB was, under the law, acting like a political action committee.
“The real test is whether a citizen of ordinary intelligence can determine whether they (the ads) were meant to elect or defeat a candidate,” Wood said.
The names of the donors were kept secret. Wood said he will go back to court to seek the names. The corporations can be subject to fines of double the amount of their contribution if it is found to have been made illegally.
The largest contribution was $250,000 from a corporation that was not a member of TAB; $480,000 in corporate cash came from companies that were not members of TAB.
That is significant because organizations such as TAB have additional First Amendment free speech protections if they are taking political action just among their members.
This certainly does nothing to dissuade me from my long-held opinion that TAB basically ignored existing election law. It’s the only explanation I can think of for their up-is-down insistence that they never advocated for or against any candidate, as well as their statements that paying for polling and electioneering counts as administrative overhead.
What do they say doesn’t count as advocacy? Here’s an example.
One mailer targeted voters in Bexar County, where Rep. Ken Mercer, a Republican, was running against Democrat Raul Prado and would ultimately defeat him.
“The Texas Association of Business is committed to fighting for free enterprise,” the mailer said. Then beside a picture of Mercer, the ad reads: “Ken Mercer stands with us in promoting the principles that will ensure that Texas remains a leader in jobs, economic development, quality education and improving transportation.”
It also mentioned Mercer’s positions on jobs and the economy, health care and corporate responsibility.
If you can read something like that and not conclude that the Texas Association of Business wants you to vote for Ken Mercer, then all I can say is that it’s a good thing you finished school before there were TAKS tests.
There were some 20,000 pages of documents released by the TAB, and it’s been just two weeks since the original court ruling which compelled them to do so, so I imagine there’ll be more of this soon. With a resurgence of the rumors that more indictments are coming soon, we may be in for a fun month of July.