Judge Finds DeLay's PAC in Violation of Texas Law

Judge Hart's Ruling

In a letter to attorneys, Judge Joseph H. Hart outlined his ruling. A formal ruling has not yet been issued:

A judge rules that a political action committee formed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay did violate Texas law. The ruling found that the group illegally funneled $500,000 in corporate campaign contributions to GOP candidates in the 2002 election.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Today, a Texas judge ruled that the treasurer of a political action committee associated with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay broke the law. The judge said hundreds of thousands of dollars of corporate campaign contributions should have been reported. The ruling came in a civil suit brought by Democrats who were defeated in the 2002 elections for the Texas House of Representatives. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has been covering the story, and he joins us.

Wade, this is the first ruling in a whole series of both civil and criminal actions against the officers of this political action committee. What's the significance of what the judge ruled today?

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

It's significant. It's significant because it lays the legal foundation for the criminal trials that are coming down the pike. Judge Joe Hart made two important rulings against TRMPAC; that stands for Texas for a Republican Majority. First, he ruled that the Texas election code under which this civil suit was brought is constitutional, and that's important because that was the first line of defense for TRMPAC's treasurer, Bill Ceverha. His lawyers argued that these statutes violated the Texas Constitution and that they violated Ceverha's right to free speech, but Judge Hart rejected that argument.

And secondly, Hart ruled that these were illegal corporate campaign contributions that should have been reported, and that spending these dollars on phone banks and polls were illegal political expenditures, not legal administrative expenditures. That's what the defense was arguing.

BLOCK: Now how influential was this money from TRMPAC in the 2002 campaign?

GOODWYN: It made a difference. It was more than $600,000. That's a lot of money in local, you know, House races. And for the first time since Reconstruction, the Texas House swung to the Republicans in that race in 2002. And with that, Republicans had control of the House, the Senate and the Governor's Mansion, and so Tom DeLay and his Republican colleagues in the capital in Austin embarked on this mid-decade redistricting effort to redraw Texas' congressional lines.

You remember that that prompted the Texas House Democrats to flee the state. First, they ran to Oklahoma and then to New Mexico in order to deny the Republicans the quorum they needed to pass those congressional lines. But in the end, the Republicans won, the Democrats came back, the lines were redrawn and five new Republicans were elected to Congress from Texas. And without that, Republicans would have lost ground in the recent elections.

BLOCK: Now reaction today to this ruling, both from the defendant and the plaintiffs in this case?

GOODWYN: Well, the defense, as you can imagine, say the judge got it wrong and they're going to appeal. Judge Hart was brought out of retirement for this case, and the Republicans were pleased that he was chosen. The Democrats waived their right to a jury trial and placed all their hopes with the judge. Lawyers for TRMPAC--the TRMPAC treasurer argued that there was no proof that the corporations intended these contributions to be used for political purposes, but Hart wrote in his decision today that there was overwhelming evidence that the contributions were intended for political purposes. The judge cited TRMPAC's own literature which said that, quote, "Every dollar you contribute will go directly toward helping win the tough races in November," unquote.

BLOCK: Now we mentioned that this is the first ruling in a whole string of civil and criminal cases relating to this political action committee set up by Tom DeLay. Remind us of the other cases that are still pending.

GOODWYN: Well, there are criminal charges that have been filed against DeLay's right-hand man, Jim Ellis. Two other DeLay associates, including John Colliandro, who's the executive director of Texans for a Republican Majority, are also facing charges. And these are charges that could bring decades in prison if they're convicted. This first trial was a civil case, but the criminal cases will walk this same path, and that's why today's ruling was seen as so important. With this victory, I would not be surprised to see the Democrats, and perhaps even the Travis County prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, add Tom DeLay's name to their pending legal actions.

BLOCK: NPR's Wade Goodwyn in Austin.

Wade, thanks very much.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

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