Rule of Law


There is a whiff of mob-rule to the campaign the Republican Party of Texas has launched against Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and his office’s grand jury investigation. Rather than wait and see the results of the investigation, GOP state Chairwoman Tina Benkiser has started a petition drive to beseech the Legislature to strip Earle of his powers. In fact, we’re surprised there hasn’t been a call for a special session to do just that. The 78th Legislature—still in force until 2005—has already gone through three specials to push through congressional redistricting. What’s a fourth, among friends, to help cover up possible criminal activity in the campaign responsible for all that good fun?

So far Texas and national media have mainly focused on the entrails of the scandal, dribbling out new details as they become available. Much of the news coverage has focused on how the U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay-inspired Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), House Speaker Tom Craddick, and the Texas Association of Business (TAB) may have broken state campaign finance laws. Did TRMPAC and TAB funnel illegal corporate money into campaigns? Did Craddick solicit votes from fellow House members in the speaker’s election in exchange for campaign contributions or anything else of value? What of the $190,000 that TRMPAC seemingly laundered through the national party?

The grand jury must be allowed to answer these important questions.

But there is another story about this scandal that is much more troubling than which laws may or may not have been broken. In this issue of the Observer, we explore which corporations provided TRMPAC with the money it needed in 2002, and what beneficial legislation, if any, they hoped to receive in return in 2003. Many of the corporations that bankrolled TRMPAC and TAB got exactly what they wanted from the 78th Legislature. Farmers Insurance (insurance reform), AT&T (telecom regulation), Philip Morris (no cigarette taxes), Reliant (energy deregulation), and Compass Bank (home equity loans) among others each earned or saved millions thanks to pet legislation that passed last session.

Of course, the Texas Legislature is not generally known for its hostility to pro-industry legislation, and boasts a rich tradition of malfeasance. It’s the rare Texas House Speaker that can’t at least get himself indicted. But the current condition of Texas politics is far from business as usual. The sheer scope, ambition, and audacity of the present orgy of corruption threatens to undermine the foundation of government for all.

What a wonderful irony that Earle’s investigation involves a century-old law known as “the robber baron statute.†Earle has dusted it off precisely for what it was intended when the populists crafted it to try to fight the last big push of the plutocrats.

In 2002, when the infection hit Austin, the cycle of corporate and special interest campaign cash opening the way for top-dollar lobbyists to dictate legislation for donor-clients was already out of control in Washington, D.C. It doesn’t have to be this way here, says Fred Lewis, of the watchdog group Campaigns for People. In this issue, Lewis offers ideas for reforms. Some may be viable next session, if enough true Republicans are disgusted by the goings on at the Capitol.

As Earle proceeds with his investigation, we must keep in mind that a few minor prosecutions won’t solve systemic flaws. If the leaders that hatched this scheme remain in power, without true reform, the people of Texas will continue to be abused by a government “by the few†and “for the few.â€