TRMPAC Case Begins

From Holden:

It’s about to begin, Travis County (Texas, y’all) District Attorney Ronnie Earle is proceeding with his case against DeLay associates Jim Ellis and John Colyandro regarding the illegal use of corporate donations by DeLay’s TRMPAC (Texas for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee).

When Jim Ellis, an associate of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, walked into the Washington headquarters of the Republican National Committee almost three years ago, he had a check backed by corporate donations and a list of Texas House candidates who needed campaign contributions from noncorporate sources, accord- ing to the indictment against Ellis.

Two weeks later, an arm of the committee sent $190,000 to the seven candidates — the same amount as the corporate check from Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee created by DeLay that was at the center of a grand jury investigation into whether corporate money was spent illegally during the 2002 legislative elections.

A coincidence, as the Republicans first contended, or money laundering, as prosecutors now allege?

The criminal case against Ellis and his co-defendant, John Colyandro, who sent the check to Ellis, steers into court this week on two fronts: an attempt today by their lawyers to set aside the indictments, and a hearing Thursday about whether the Texas Ethics Commission must turn over confidential information to prosecutors. That information has been subpoenaed by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle.

An here’s a neat twist: Texas’ Republican Attorney General is refusing to represent the Texas Ethics Commission before the grand jury. Why?

Well, it seems that in 1998 someone asked the Ethics Commission if it would be legal to use corporate funds for a political campaign. The Ethics Commission drafted an opinion saying it would be illegal, the requestor withdrew his request.

Now Ronnie Earle wants to know who made that request (Hmmm… could it be Tom DeSomething?), but the Commission is protecting his or her identity against the advice of Attorney General Greg Abbott.

And the Ethics Commission has taken the rare step of ignoring the advice of its lawyer, Attorney General Greg Abbott, refusing to turn over documents that purportedly would show whether anyone who was later associated with Texans for a Republican Majority had sought the state’s guidance on the legality of using corporate donations.

State law forbids corporate or union money from being spent on campaign activity but allows it to be spent to establish or administer a political action committee.

Abbott, whose job is to represent state agencies, has refused to represent the Ethics Commission in its face-off Thursday over the subpoena in front of state District Judge Bob Perkins, a no-nonsense judge who once jailed a Texas speaker for missing a hearing.

“We have a different view about the appropriate course of action,” Abbott spokeswoman Angela Hale said.

At issue is whether the commission must identify the person who, in 1998, sought an advisory opinion on whether corporations with no connection to a political action committee can contribute money for its operations without reporting it to state officials. That’s what happened almost four years later with Texans for a Republican Majority when it spent almost $600,000 in corporate money on pollsters, fund-raisers, phone banks and consultants.

Whoever requested the opinion withdrew the query after the Ethics Commission lawyers wrote a draft opinion saying corporations should not give money to political action committees that they did not help establish. The draft opinion never became official once the request was withdrawn.

Prosecutors would like to know whether the person who withdrew the request, or the corporate clients, later had any connection with Texans for a Republican Majority.

Natalia Ashley, the agency’s general counsel, said Ethics Commission members are trying to comply with a law that requires them to keep the identity confidential: “It’s not their intention to impede any investigation.”

If Perkins makes the commission surrender the requester’s identity, it would be for grand jurors, whose proceedings are secret.