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TRM/TAB focus shifting to businesses

According to this Statesman article, Travis County DA Ronnie Earle is saying that the corporations that financed the 2002 GOP takeover of the state Legislature is facing greater scrutiny than Tom DeLay himself.

The shift in emphasis is just the latest twist over the past 20 months as prosecutors wrestle with mounds of evidence and a long list of witnesses in the biggest political investigation of District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s 27-year career.

On Friday, the direction of the massive investigation, with repercussions from the Legislature to the halls of Congress, became clearer as Earle updated its progress and defense lawyers weighed in with their speculation.

In a 90-minute interview, Earle acknowledged he would have retired this year if not for the investigation, which he said he is determined to pursue to the end.

Lawyers for DeLay said Friday that prosecutors have told them their client is not a specific target of the investigation, a claim Earle didn’t fully dispute, though he added, “It’s too early to pass out get-out-of-jail-free cards.”

Earle said portions of the investigation could be completed later this summer, but some complaints might take longer.

Over the 20 months, Earle hasn’t cooled his populist message about the significance of the investigation: “Democracy can’t depend on who owns the microphone, and that’s the issue here: unbridled wealth controlling the electoral process.”

Earle said the investigation has expanded to include at least five political organizations, many individuals and the corporations that financed them.

“This isn’t about Tom DeLay,” Earle said of the investigation’s breadth. “It’s about corporate greed. They can always find another Tom DeLay.”

[…]

The allegation behind the expansive grand jury investigation is whether Republicans and their business allies violated state laws that prohibit corporate money being spent on campaign activity.

The focus is on Texans for a Republican Majority; Texas Association of Business; Law Enforcement Alliance of America; Americans for Job Security; and the Lone Star Fund, a Democratic committee added recently when Republicans filed a complaint.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and his Democratic predecessor, Pete Laney, are subplots to the overall investigation. Prosecutors are checking whether Craddick violated any laws when Texans for a Republican Majority turned over $152,000 to Craddick’s office to be distributed to his supporters in the Legislature. Craddick has claimed he didn’t do anything that Laney and the Democrats haven’t done in the past — a charge Laney denied.

The newest wrinkle, however, is prosecutors’ interest in the corporations that gave the money.

Sources close to the investigation say legal liability for corporations varies from case to case because of different laws and the defenses that corporations can offer.

For example, corporations that gave $1.9 million for ads by the Association of Business can argue that they gave the money with assurances from the association’s lawyers that the donations were legal. Corporations that gave the $600,000 to Texans for a Republican Majority might not have the same defense, the sources said.

Indicting corporations also has a political benefit.

“Earle versus Enron — Ronnie likes the sound of that,” one source said, using Enron generically though it did not donate in this case.

On Friday, Earle insisted that no one — individual or corporation — is in the clear yet.

“Anybody who committed a crime is a target,” Earle said. “The only pressure I feel is not to stop until we get to all of the truth.”

Very interesting. It’s a long article, so read it all. I don’t know if this will undermine Chris Bell’s ethics complaint against DeLay – he’s alleging that DeLay broke House rules, not Texas law, after all – but it looks like it might be a little ammo for DeLay’s defenders, if they ever feel like ceasing with the slime attacks for a minute.

And to an extent, I agree with what Earle is saying. The picture is bigger than Tom DeLay, and there will always be someone like him looking to exploit any weakness in the rules for their purposes. If the process he set in motion gets shut down but he gets away, I’ll still take that.

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2 Comments

  1. kevin whited says:

    Given the current state of campaign finance laws and requirements and the “bipartisan” support for such restrictions (rather than support for more speech but greater transparency), there will always be such a process, Charles, and politicos from both sides will take advantage of it. Shut one down, and a dozen more will spring up.

    Will you be as happy if those Dem 527s get shut down for violating “spirits” in silly campaign finance laws? I won’t, especially, if it ever does happen. I bet you won’t either. Yet the march towards more, unenforceable (or worse, selectively enforced) campaign finance legislation will continue.

    Folks who believe in the perfectibility of man always believe that there’s one more tweak to make legislation perfect. I think they’re misguided. 🙂

  2. RL says:

    I have been trying to figure Chris Bell’s angle in this. Who’s water is he carrying or what office is he planning to run for next? Please don’t tell me he is planning on returning to a law practice in Houston and going quietly in that good night. After this he can no longer claim to be a “bi-partisan” D as he did for city council and in the congressional election. He has clearly chosen a side and I think it will be difficult to get crossover votes so that limits his statewide appeal. Any ideas on what’s next in the Bell list of office attempts? Think Eric Burns will remain in his staff?