|Tom DeLay- Corporate Whore|
BY AMY SMITH
A campaign finance expert who has advised some of the nation's top GOP elected officials, including first President George Bush and U.S. Sen. John McCain, will be batting for state Democrats next month in a courtroom battle over money and politics.
Trevor Potter, a lifelong Republican and former commissioner and chair of the Federal Election Commission, will testify on behalf of five defeated legislative candidates who claim a political fundraising group – Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee – violated campaign finance laws in its quest to produce a GOP controlled House.
The lawsuit – a civil spin-off of an ongoing criminal probe touched off by the 2002 election upset – will be heard in a nonjury trial that begins Feb. 28. TRMPAC attorneys had sought to have Potter eliminated from the plaintiffs' witness lineup, but a ruling last week cleared the way for his testimony. The pretrial setback for TRMPAC followed arguments before Senior Retired State District Judge Joe Hart. Lawyers for the TRMPAC defendants asserted that Potter's legal expertise on federal election matters doesn't qualify him as an authority on the Texas Election Code. In fact, said attorney Terry Scarborough, referring to a transcript of Potter's Jan. 11 deposition, Potter "is guilty of not even knowing the basic definition of a campaign contribution in Texas." (Of course, TRMPAC's apparently ingenious redefinition of Texas campaign finance law is exactly what is at issue in the lawsuit.) Scarborough represents TRMPAC campaign treasurer Bill Ceverha. Attorney Mike Thompson Jr. also presented arguments on behalf of client John Colyandro.
Plaintiffs' attorney Joe Crews said Potter's experience, which includes drafting the new McCain-Feingold law on campaign finance, is so vast, "I don't know how anyone can be more qualified." Potter will be called on to bolster the lawsuit's claims that the TRMPAC defendants violated campaign finance laws by illegally soliciting or failing to disclose corporate and noncorporate contributions.
Meanwhile, Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle is continuing his criminal investigation of TRMPAC – the brainchild of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – and the group's reliance on corporate dollars to ensure GOP victories in several House races. The lawsuit and the criminal probe represent one of the biggest power plays in the history of state politics. Tension between the two parties could grow more strained in the weeks leading up to the civil trial.
Some Democrats believe the GOP already fired the first warning shot on Jan. 14: The Texas Ethics Commission levied a rare $10,000 fine against one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs – former state Rep. Ann Kitchen, D-Austin – for failing to include several in-kind contributions in her financial reports filed eight days before the 2002 election. Kitchen said the omission was inadvertent and corrected the error after TRMPAC lawyers brought it to her attention during a deposition earlier this year. The TEC typically waives or reduces fines if good-faith efforts are made to correct reporting errors. Kitchen has asked the commission to reconsider its penalty.
For better or worse, the civil trial will play out against the backdrop of a grueling legislative session in which lawmakers will be tested (again) on their ability to put politics aside and pass a school finance bill. But betting men and women are predicting that issue, too, will end up (again) in the courts.
by Joe Conason
Two months ago, the Republican members of the House of Representatives voted to repeal the rule that requires any of their leaders indicted for a criminal offense to relinquish his or her leadership post. That remarkable event occurred behind closed doors, without a recorded vote. Only a few members were willing to discuss their strange decision publicly: They said they had acted to protect the principle of the presumption of innocence and to prevent political manipulation by unscrupulous partisans.
The other day, those same House Republicans voted to reinstate the rule they had just repealed last November. Their lofty principles remained valid, they said, but they had reversed positions to deprive the Democrats of an issue. Through this supple maneuver, they had also quite conveniently avoided the possibility of an open, recorded vote on the rule. The Republicans also dropped several other proposed rule changes that would have effectively ended ethics enforcement in the House.
On both occasions, the individual conscience of nearly every Republican member happened to coincide perfectly with the orders of the day from Tom DeLay—the House Majority Leader and Republican boss whose fear of indictment by a Texas grand jury had prompted the rule changes in the first place.
As predictably as any gaggle of stooges in the old Soviet Parliament, the members had lauded their Majority Leader when they voted to vacate the indictment rule at his instigation—and then they praised him even more fervently after he commanded them to change their minds. Those Capitol Hill conservatives may be hard-line, but at least nobody can accuse them of being inflexible.
Perhaps it is churlish to mock the Republicans for reversing their original bad decision, no matter how mindless and submissive they seemed while doing so. Encouraging news about Congressional ethics is exceptionally rare. So is a victory for independent citizen action against arrogant authority.
What the latest rules reversal proves is that while Mr. DeLay may be crude, he certainly isn’t stupid. Blistered by criticism from editorial boards and nonpartisan groups, the Republican boss realized that he and his members are now vulnerable to the same moral arguments they once used to oust the Democrats from power. That danger was emphasized by a coalition of eight citizen organizations, ranging from Judicial Watch on the right to Public Campaign on the left, which gave voice to public outrage. Suddenly, as angry e-mails poured into their offices, the people’s elected representatives understood that voting to weaken ethics rules on the first day of the 109th Congress wouldn’t look so good.
Of course, an improvement in perception doesn’t necessarily indicate any change of character. And there is certainly more than one way to "reform" the system so that the House leadership can accept legalized bribes, strong-arm votes and misuse public agencies without fear of punishment. The easiest way to stop any high-minded meddling by ethical party-poopers is to rig the committee that is supposed to enforce the rules.
Alert readers will recall that last fall, the bipartisan House Ethics Committee unanimously voted to "admonish" Mr. DeLay for several rather blatant acts that brought discredit on Congress. While pushing for passage of the Medicare prescription-drug bill, he offered help for the Congressional campaign of Michigan Republican Nick Smith’s son, in exchange for Mr. Smith’s floor vote. According to the committee, he also "appeared" to tie campaign donations from a Kansas energy utility with action on legislation that the utility wanted. (What a shock!) And he misused Federal Aviation Administration personnel to pursue Texas Democratic legislators who had fled Austin to avoid voting on Mr. DeLay’s gerrymandering plan.
After being admonished three times for misconduct, Mr. DeLay is especially determined to prevent any further interference with his way of doing business. So he reportedly plans to remove Joel Hefley, the Colorado Republican who chairs the ethics committee, and replace him with Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who has given money to Mr. DeLay’s "defense fund." There are warnings that Mr. DeLay will purge all the Republicans on the Ethics Committee, since they committed the unforgivable offense of scolding him.
Neutering the Ethics Committee is not merely a question of petty vengeance for Mr. DeLay. Prosecutor Ronnie Earle’s investigation of illicit corporate fund-raising by the DeLay political machine is continuing—and making progress. Two of the indicted corporations have filed plea agreements with the prosecutor, which suggests that they are cooperating with his probe. That could be very bad news for Mr. DeLay.
Yet another investigation is focused on Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who happens to be a close, longtime associate of the Majority Leader. Among Mr. Abramoff’s many alleged offenses is using money provided by two Indian tribes to take a key Republican committee chairman, Bob Ney of Indiana, on a $50,000 golf junket to Scotland.
Mr. DeLay is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but his craven colleagues shouldn’t help to intimidate those who may someday judge him.
Action comes ahead of swearing-in of new Congress
The Associated Press
Updated: 9:34 a.m. ET Jan. 4, 2005
WASHINGTON - The new Congress convenes Tuesday as House Republicans, leery of a bruising floor fight, stepped back from plans to significantly relax ethics rules that ensnared Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
GOP leaders stressed that they didn’t want the ethics issue to sidetrack their greater goals for this session of Congress, such as overhauling the Social Security system.
“It would have been the right thing to do, but it was becoming a distraction,” said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., referring to a relaxation in ethics rules including one that would have allowed party heads to retain their posts even if indicted.
The House and Senate were to open the 109th session of Congress at noon ET Tuesday with the swearing-in of new members, a ceremony that makes official the GOP gains of the November elections. Republicans picked up four seats in the Senate, to reach 55, and will command 232 of the 435 House seats, an increase of three.
Ethics inquiries would be harderThe House will then take up the GOP-proposed rules changes, which, despite the modifications made by Republicans at a closed-door meeting Monday, are likely to generate Democratic protests.
The proposals will make it harder to proceed with an ethics investigation by requiring a majority vote of the evenly divided ethics committee. The current system allows an investigation to begin automatically if there is no action within 45 days.
Among other provisions of the package, lawmakers and their staff would be able to take a relative along on lobbyist-financed trips. Currently, they can be accompanied only by a spouse or child.
Another provision would expand the authority of the committee that oversees homeland security issues, a move that was strongly backed by the Sept. 11 Commission, which complained that too many committees in Congress have jurisdiction over security matters.
DeLay sought to overturn ruleBut the likelihood of a bitter fight over ethics was largely averted when DeLay, R-Texas, and Hastert made two startling announcements at the beginning of the GOP meeting.
First DeLay asked Republicans to overturn the party rule, enacted last November on his behalf, that allows party heads to retain their posts even if indicted. Three of DeLay’s Texas associates have been indicted by a grand jury in Austin on fund-raising violation charges.
DeLay’s spokesman, Jonathan Grella, said DeLay was confident that he would not be indicted, and decided to seek the elimination of the rule protecting him because he didn’t want to give Democrats an issue.
“We want to make sure the substance comes first. Anything that could undermine our agenda needs to be nipped in the bud,” said Grella.
DeLay’s action won praise from his GOP colleagues. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said DeLay “made a very courageous statement that allows us to put this issue to rest.”
Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who opposed the rules changes, said: “It’s a mark of a leader to take a bullet for the team and not for the team to take a bullet for the leader.”
Hastert withdraws misconduct proposalSecondly, Hastert withdrew a proposal that would have made it tougher to rebuke a member of the House for misconduct. Here too the dispute revolved around DeLay.
The ethics panel, while saying the DeLay broke no rule or law, has criticized him in the past year for his tactics in trying to win the vote of a colleague, for giving the impression of a link between donations and support for legislation, and for his office’s contact with federal aviation officials, seeking their intervention in a Texas political dispute.
The code of conduct that was retained by the Republicans requires lawmakers and employees to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.” Some Republicans believed the standard is too general and wanted any discipline to depend on a more specific finding of wrongdoing.
Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said Republicans pulled back on the discipline rule because “the issue simply became too hot for them to handle.”
Congressional watchdog groups have been strongly critical of the GOP-proposed ethics changes.
Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, at a news conference joined by eight other groups Monday, said one change the Republicans did accept — to effectively kill an investigation if there is a tie vote among committee members — “is a recipe for deadlock and gridlock in the system.”
Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said a more compelling reason for keeping the ethics rules was that members were hearing concerns from voters. “Constituents reacted and the House, and more importantly the House leadership, responded accordingly,” he said.