Friday, May 27, 2005

Judge's ruling fuels DeLay's ethics woes


Judge's ruling fuels DeLay's ethics woes
Thu May 26, 2005 7:10 PM ET

By Mark Babineck

HOUSTON (Reuters) - A political committee formed by U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay broke Texas law by not disclosing more than $600,000 in mostly corporate contributions, a judge ruled in a case that adds to ethics questions swirling around the powerful Republican.

State District Judge Joe Hart in Austin made the ruling on Thursday in a lawsuit filed by five Democratic candidates defeated in 2002 by Republicans who received money from Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee founded by DeLay to help his party capture the Texas Legislature.

Hart awarded the Democrats a total of $196,660 in damages.

DeLay, the second-ranking Republican in the House, was not a defendant in the suit, which was filed against committee treasurer Bill Ceverha.

But the ruling was the latest setback for DeLay, who has been under fire recently over ethics questions involving fund-raising, foreign travel and his relationships with lobbyists. The finding could be a harbinger of the outcome of a criminal probe into the committee's activities, said the head of a campaign-finance watchdog group.

DeLay has said he was not involved in daily operations of the committee, created before the 2002 elections, and has accused Democrats of using partisan attacks to weaken him politically.

His attorney, Bobby Burchfield, said of Hart's ruling: "Tom DeLay is not mentioned anywhere in the decision, nor should he be. He wasn't involved at all in the case."

The Democrats charged that the committee did not report the corporate money and that it was used illegally, because Texas law forbids the use of corporate donations in political campaigns.

Ceverha argued that the money went toward administrative costs, not campaigns.


The committee's efforts helped Republicans capture the Texas Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War. The shift led to a remapping of the state's congressional districts which ultimately increased the party's majority in the U.S. House.

Contributions to the committee should have been reported to the Texas Ethics Commission because "they were used in connection with a campaign for elective office," Hart wrote in his decision, which followed a trial in March.

He did not rule on whether the money was raised and spent illegally, but did find that most of the campaign contributions "were not, in fact, to finance the ... administration" of the committee.

The decision was a victory for clean politics, said Joe Crews, attorney for the Democrats.

"This is the first step in upholding the integrity of the Texas electoral process," Crews said. "It sends a very clear message to corporations and lobbyists and other folks that this sort of secretive, underhanded activity is against the law."

Ceverha attorney Terry Scarborough said in a statement that Hart's decision was "wrong" and would be appealed.

"Our client was exercising his constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association," he said.

The national Democratic Party, which has made DeLay a top target in the 2006 election, welcomed the decision.

"The long arm of the law finally caught up to the rule-breaking, power-abusing Tom DeLay," spokesman Josh Earnest said. "Tom DeLay can no longer assert that the rules of law and justice don't apply to him.

Although DeLay, who represents a Houston area district, was not a defendant in the suit, he is under investigation by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle in Austin for his part in the committee's activities.

He has not been charged, but three men with close ties to DeLay have been indicted for illegal fund-raising activities by the committee.

Hart's decision could be a harbinger of the criminal investigation because it found illegal actions by the committee, said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, a research group that tracks money in politics.

"I think this just bodes very badly for the criminal case and will have a major political impact on DeLay down the road," McDonald said.