Texas Judge Clears Way for Ethics Case

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A Texas state judge this week affirmed an earlier ruling that the case against senior members of a GOP political action committee closely associated with House Majority Leader Tom Delay can go forward. The charges stem from Texans For A Republican Majority's actions in 2002 state campaigns.


Jack Abramoff's list of political contacts is a long one, but by far the best known is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Abramoff has raised money for DeLay's campaigns and causes, and some of his overseas trips with the majority leader are expected to be investigated by the House Ethics Committee later this year. DeLay is also a potential target of a grand jury probe back in Texas, where fund-raisers with ties to DeLay have already been indicted. There have been developments in that case this week, and joining us now to talk about that is NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

Wade, start by reminding us, please, what this case is all about.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

It's about the 2002 elections for the Texas House of Representatives. The Democrats had controlled the Texas House for a hundred years, but Republicans had been gaining on them. And in 2002, Tom DeLay knew the Republicans could win a majority if they had enough money, so he helped to set up the political action committee called Texans for a Republican Majority. And TRMPAC, as it became known, funneled campaign contributions to 21 targeted races, and it worked. Republicans won 16 of those seats and took control of the Texas House, and that, in turn, allowed them to draw new congressional districts, which eventually sent six additional Texas Republicans to Washington, DC, all of which made the House majority leader very happy.

BLOCK: And how do these issues with TRMPAC and ultimately with redistricting end up in court?

GOODWYN: Well, after the election in 2002, some of the Republicans who had run these PACs began bragging in their literature and on TV about how they'd won the day by funnelling tens of thousands of dollars of corporate campaign contributions to the winning candidates. In the afterglow of victory, they were just tooting their own horn a little bit.

The problem is that it's been illegal in Texas since 1903 for corporations to give money to political candidates. So the horn-tooting backfired when, upon hearing this, five of the defeated Democrats decided to sue. And then the Austin district attorney--he's also a Democrat...

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

GOODWYN: ...he brought criminal indictments against the officers of those PACs, including John Colliandro and Jim Ellis of TRMPAC.

BLOCK: Which brings us up to this week. We mentioned there've been developments. What's going on?

GOODWYN: Well, the defense lawyers have taken aim at the district attorney; his name's Ronnie Earl. They accuse Earl of partisan prosecution, and they say that Democrats have been laundering corporate contributions, too, so that this is selective prosecution. That's for public consumption; that's not going to work in court.

In court, they have argued that the laws under which these indictments have been brought are unconstitutionally vague. But the judge has ruled twice now, again this week, that these laws and indictments are constitutional. So now it's on to the appeals courts for the defense.

BLOCK: And where does this leave Tom DeLay?

GOODWYN: Well, he still could be indicted. I think for that to happen, one of his two associates would have to cooperate with prosecutors. The focus has been on John Colliandro. He was TRMPAC's executive director in Texas, and he faces up to life in prison if convicted.

The Texas Observer, the state's liberal political journal--they published a piece earlier this year entitled Lobbying While Indicted, which focused on the lucrative contracts that Colliandro and Ellis have received since being indicted. That's a bit unusual. But based on the law enforcement sources I've been talking to, I don't think DeLay is going to face criminal charges unless either Colliandro or Ellis cooperate. And certainly while the appeals are ongoing, with a small chance the indictments could be dismissed, there won't be any talk about a possible deal.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Wade Goodwyn, thanks very much.

GOODWYN: Oh, you're quite welcome.

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