Ending Pay to Play

It’s amazing how quickly some politicians can discover a previously absent ethical bent when a scandal comes to town. First-degree felony indictments can really focus the mind that way. On September 21, a Travis County grand jury returned 32 criminal indictments against three individuals and eight corporations with links to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land). Suddenly what was common practice two years ago now gives off the beginnings of a malodorous stench.

The indictments allege that DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) funneled illegal corporate money to aid a select slate of Republican state House candidates in 2002. TRMPAC blew open a loophole in the law with an expansive definition of “administrative†expenses that included such items as political polling and phone banks. Staffers affiliated with the PAC also allegedly laundered corporate money through the Republican National Committee.

To date, much of the media attention has focused on whether DeLay and friends violated the law to secure a mid-decade redrawing of the state’s congressional districts. But there’s more to this whole affair than the machinations of the majority leader. TRMPAC teamed with the Texas Association of Business and other affiliated Republican groups to raise and spend at least $2.5 million from corporate donors in the 2002 campaign. Some of those contributors simply wanted to curry favor with DeLay. Many others, however, asked for specific goodies from the 78th Legislature. Few were disappointed. Big Insurance got industry-friendly rates, nursing homes got lawsuit protection, the banks received a constitutional amendment authorizing home equity lines of credit, AT&T halted a telecom deregulation bill. And that’s just a partial list. Since 2002, the ethos at the Lege seems to be “pay to play.â€

Despite the burgeoning scandal, the influence of corporate money in the Lege continues. After redistricting, DeLay’s operation in Texas went into hibernation but Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) formed a new leadership fundraising effort for himself in fall 2003 called Stars Over Texas PAC. Undeterred by the TRMPAC inquiry, Stars Over Texas began raising money from some the same corporate benefactors who had donated to TRMPAC. (At first, Stars Over Texas even hired TRMPAC treasurer Bill Ceverha as its moneyman.) AT&T gave $100,000 in corporate cash. Eight payday loan companies—including Check’n Go of Texas, Cash America, and Mister Money, USA—contributed a total of $8,500 in corporate money in eight separate checks on March 29, 2004. Payday loan companies, which charge working families astronomical interest rates, want the Texas market deregulated. Stars Over Texas also hosted an Austin fund-raiser on September 16. Listed on the event’s invitation among the “host committee†were a number of corporate contributors, including AT&T, Comcast, and Centerpoint Energy. It appeared rather unseemly. After all, $110,000 is a lot of money to spend solely on administrative expenses, unless the PAC is renting office space on New York City’s Park Avenue and buying gold-trimmed paper for the copier.

Following the Sharpstown scandal of 1972, real reform came to the Capitol, prompting passage of some of Texas’ best open-government laws. This coming legislative session offers an opportunity to rid the system of the influence of corporate money and to restore a modicum of faith in the legislative process. Perhaps several rounds of indictments will provide lawmakers the needed political will. Three days after the indictments came down, Stars Over Texas announced it would return all its corporate donations. It was a small, first victory for campaign finance reformers.

It shouldn’t be the last.

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Published at 12:00 am CST