|Tom DeLay- Corporate Whore|
By PHILIP SHENON
AUSTIN, Tex., Feb. 24 - A civil trial scheduled to open here on Monday involving allegations of illegal campaign contributions to Republican members of the Texas House is likely to attract almost as much attention in the halls of Congress as it will on the floor of the State Legislature.
The reason is the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who is among the most powerful men on Capitol Hill and his party's most potent fund-raiser in Congress. While not named as a defendant in the civil trial or placed on the witness list, Mr. DeLay is still likely to find himself a focus of attention in the Travis County courthouse, with Congressional Democrats looking for any sign that his legal troubles back home could be widening.
"People have this bloodlust for DeLay," said Rusty Hardin, a Houston lawyer who is defending a major Washington-based fund-raiser for Mr. DeLay who was indicted in a related criminal investigation here. "The entire focus and interest in this thing will be DeLay," Mr. Hardin said of the civil trial.
The trial in Travis County, which includes most of the state capital, Austin, was prompted by a lawsuit brought by defeated Democratic candidates who charged that political operatives of Mr. DeLay used illegal fund-raising tactics to engineer a Republican takeover of the Legislature. The takeover benefited Mr. DeLay and his colleagues in Washington by enabling Texas Republicans to redraw Congressional districts, solidifying Republican control of the House.
Two of Mr. DeLay's major political operatives in Washington and another political ally in Texas were indicted last year in the grand jury investigation, accused of participating in what local prosecutors described as a scheme to make illegal corporate donations to Republican candidates for the Legislature.
A century-old state law bars companies from making donations to individual candidates for the Legislature, a legacy of the struggles at the turn of the century between Texas farmers and ranchers and so-called corporate robber barons.
Another powerful Texan close to Mr. DeLay and his fund-raising operation here, House Speaker Tom Craddick, has had his records subpoenaed by the grand jury.
Mr. DeLay has said for months that he has nothing to fear from the criminal investigation, describing the earlier indictments as "frivolous" and a partisan attempt to "criminalize politics" by the Travis County district attorney, Ronald Earle, a Democrat who has held the job since the 1970's.
Still, while prosecutors have made no public suggestion that they consider Mr. DeLay a target of their continuing investigation, he has been gathering donations back in Washington for a legal defense fund to deal with the inquiry.
His legal troubles inspired a move by House Republicans last year - since reversed in the face of widespread criticism from within their own party - to rewrite House rules to allow Mr. DeLay to hold onto his job even if indicted.
In Washington, Mr. DeLay's spokesman, Dan Allen, seemed ready to deal with whatever unwelcome publicity is produced at the trial in Austin. He said last week that "as much as the Democrats and their allies would like to make this about Tom DeLay, this trial has nothing to do with Tom DeLay."
The trial is expected to produce testimony detailing Mr. DeLay's involvement in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate donations that were the basis of last year's indictments. The trial may also show that a legal noose is tightening on some of Mr. DeLay's political allies in Texas.
The most anticipated testimony at the trial had been that of Mr. Craddick, the first Republican to hold the job of Texas House speaker in more than 130 years and a close friend of Mr. DeLay from their days in the Legislature.
Mr. Craddick had been subpoenaed to testify about his ties to Mr. DeLay's political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, commonly known here as Trmpac (pronounced TRIM-pac). The committee's fund-raising and spending activities are the focus of both the civil lawsuit and the criminal investigation.
[In an agreement reached on Friday, Mr. Craddick was excused from taking the witness stand after he acknowledged through his lawyers that his office had distributed $152,000 in donations raised by the committee to Republican candidates in the months before his election as speaker, and after conceding that he and his staff might have shredded documents about the committee.
Sworn testimony could have posed dangers for Mr. Craddick, since Texas campaign laws make it a crime for candidates for the job of speaker to use campaign money to make donations to other lawmakers.]
Mr. Craddick's lawyer, Roy Minton, said in an interview last week, "I have not seen any evidence that the speaker broke any law." He said Mr. Earle, the prosecutor, "has never told me that the speaker is a target or anything like that."
The civil lawsuit was brought by five defeated Democratic candidates in the 2002 state election, who alleged that Mr. DeLay's political action committee used large corporate donations - many gathered from companies based outside Texas, some of them with little obvious interest in the state - to underwrite their Republican opponents.
One of the Austin lawyers representing the Democrats, Cris D. Feldman, said he expected to question witnesses intensively during the trial about their contacts with Mr. DeLay and the majority leader's role in the political action committee.
"It was DeLay's operatives, including his daughter, who set up and ran Trmpac," Mr. Feldman said. "Tom DeLay figures prominently in the events that will be discussed at trial."
Texans for a Republican Majority awarded a $30,000 contract to Mr. DeLay's daughter, Dani DeLay Ferro, to organize fund-raising events in 2002. She is not a defendant in the civil suit, and there has been no suggestion that she is under investigation by the grand jury.
The defendant in the civil trial is Bill Ceverha, the treasurer of the political action committee and a former Republican member of the Texas House, who is contesting the lawsuit. His lawyer, Terry Scarborough, said Mr. Ceverha had done nothing wrong, describing his client as a victim of a "larger political agenda" by Democrats aimed at chilling Republican fund-raising efforts in Texas and damaging Mr. DeLay.
Mr. DeLay, whose home is in Sugar Land, Tex., outside Houston, was a founder of the Texas political action committee in November 2001 and a member of its advisory board.
Early promotional material released by the committee alarmed Democrats, who suggested that it was evidence the committee intended to violate at least the spirit of the state's campaign laws. In one solicitation to donors, the committee said it intended to use corporate donations to finance "productive and innovative activities" to assist the Texas Republican Party, including "active candidate evaluation and recruitment" and "monitoring" of campaigns. There were four different contribution levels for companies, with the largest donors, $100,000 or more, given "platinum" status.
The Texas committee was modeled in part on Americans for a Republican Majority, Mr. DeLay's national political committee, and people with close ties to Mr. DeLay were given prominent roles in the Texas organization, including two of the defendants indicted last September: James W. Ellis, who ran Americans for a Republican Majority, and Warren RoBold, a Washington-based fund-raiser for Mr. DeLay.
The Texas committee's executive director, John D. Colyandro, who is a close friend of Mr. Ellis, was also charged. The three men have pleaded not guilty to the felony counts and are awaiting their trial, which has not been scheduled.
The committee's lawyers have said that the committee was always careful to separate donations from individuals, which could be passed on to candidates, from corporate donations, which were supposed to be restricted to administrative costs.
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