Political Intelligence

There is Always a Bright Side

There is Always a Bright Side

LWI: LOBBYING WHILE INDICTED John Colyandro’s criminal indictments have not prevented the ex-director of Tom DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC) from landing contracts to lobby the government that he is accused of illegally helping to elect. Rather, a Travis County grand jury’s criminal charges against Colyandro last fall for allegedly breaking a state prohibition on corporate contributions may have actually boosted his lobby stature. An alternative explanation is that Team DeLay is taking care of a man who knows too much. Colyandro is receiving up to $150,000 so far this year to lobby for four out-of-state corporations, according to initial 2005 Texas lobby filings. The value of these contracts already equal what Colyandro reported by the close of the last legislative session in 2003. Colyandro’s current clients are all government contractors. The state of Texas previously awarded contracts to at least two of them: investment bank SBK-Brooks and highway contractor VMS, Inc. The third client, Louis Berger Group, is a construction giant with U.S. contracts in Iraq. The last client, 3SG Corp., digitizes and manages documents. Colyandro and TRMPAC board member Jim Ellis both lobbied for highway contractor VMS a year before their indictments. Both men are affiliated with a Virginia consulting firm called Performance and Results International Strategy Management (PRISM). Jim Ellis still has a voicemail box at PRISM’s headquarters located outside Washington and Colyandro’s current lobby filings list “PRISM” as his lobby firm. Ellis—a close aide to Tom DeLay—could be providing for Colyandro through PRISM. Colyandro could connect a lot of dots for the prosecutors who have charged him with 14 felonies, including a first-degree felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 99 years. When contacted, a PRISM spokesperson said that CEO David Sanders was the only one who could comment on Colyandro but he was not available to do so. PRISM referred calls for Ellis to DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, TRMPAC’s federal cousin. Ellis did not return messages seeking comment, left at ARMPAC and PRISM. The Texas Education Agency signed a $15,000 contract with PRISM in November 2004 to provide management-training services, according to an agency spokesperson. Colyandro is also executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition, which wields considerable clout with state Republican leaders. Calls to the phone Colyandro lists in lobby filings went unanswered and he did not reply to a message left at the Conservative Coalition. The two Colyandro clients that returned the Observer’s calls confirmed that they were interested in doing business with the state of Texas but said that they had no direct dealings with Colyandro. Louis Berger Group President Nicholas Masucci said his firm had contracted with PRISM’s CEO. 3SG President Nanda Nair acknowledged PRISM may have done some lobbying for his company. Lobbying while indicted puts Colyandro in elite company. A computerized search for the phrase “indicted lobbyist” in major U.S. newspapers published over the past decade yields reports of just seven other indicted lobbyists. The Observer could document only three cases like Colyandro’s in which a lobbyist continued lobbying in the year following his or her indictment. Two of these indicted lobbyists were cronies of former U.S. House Transportation Committee Chair Bud Shuster (R-Pa)—one of the few Congressmen who can match Tom DeLay’s record for ethics scandals. A 1998 federal indictment charged lobbyist Vernon Clark and ex-Shuster aide Ann Eppard with a bribery scheme to secure federal funds for Boston’s $15 billion “Big-Dig” boondoggle. (Eppard and Clark pled guilty to related misdemeanor charges in late 1999—a year when Eppard reported $1 million in lobby contracts.) The third post-indictment lobbyist is Florida’s Arthur “Buddy” Jacobs, who later was acquitted. A 1997 federal grand jury charged Jacobs with conspiring to defraud the federal government when he helped arrange funding for a Florida port. One client that retained Jacobs after his indictment was the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. PICKETS TO PROFITS On a typical Wednesday at the McClennan County Planned Parenthood clinic in Waco, about a dozen and a half picketers will stand at the corner of the brown rectangular building hoisting signs with photos of abortions so grisly that parents shield the eyes of their children as they shepherd them to the Montessori school across the street. Since January 2002, the Waco-based Planned Parenthood of Central Texas has been turning these protests into profits. Under the Pledge-a-Picket program, each time a protester shows up at the Waco clinic, a donation is made to support its work. “It truly is a win-win situation,” says Trudy Woodson, director of public affairs at the clinic. If a large number of demonstrators appear, the clinic gains financially. But if opponents choose to stay home, Planned Parenthood gains a day of peace. The Pledge-a-Picket campaign allows donors to pledge between 25 cents and one dollar every time a protester arrives at the Waco center. When the program began, donors included individuals from Waco and surrounding areas. But according to Woodson, a recent interview with Planned Parenthood on the national radio program Air America brought more attention to the Pledge-a-Picket program, and has since generated donations from individuals as far away as New York. The Waco clinic is the only Planned Parenthood affiliate to run the program year-round. The Planned Parenthood web site compares the program to sponsoring a runner in a charity marathon. The money raised goes to the clinic’s patient assistance fund, which helps clients without resources get the care they need. With as much as 97 percent of the clinic’s clientele living below the federal poverty line, these patient assistance funds provide crucial reproductive healthcare services, such as Pap smears and breast exams, as well as supporting Patient Assistance Loans (PAL) that subsidize surgical abortions for low-income women in the community. Just in case the picketers are unaware of the Pledge-a-Picket program, the clinic posts a weekly sign outside that says, “Even our protesters support Planned Parenthood,” and includes the total dollar amount raised through the program’s donations. “This lets the protesters know how much money they are making for us every time they show up,” says Woodson. At present the program has brought in more than $23,000. The picketers are not amused. “I don’t think pro-lifers are going to fall for this little publicity stunt,” says Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance For Life. Not only are abortion foes not going away, now that the Legislature is back in session, attacks on women’s reproductive rights and access to family planning services are escalating. Yet Planned Parenthood has found a method to use the opposition not only for creative fundraising but to create real grassroots support. “We’re just trying to make lemonade out of lemons,” says the clinic’s Woodson. IT’S MARVELOUS MEDICINE Marcia Baker pleads with legislative aide Jason Nelson, as she sits in her wheelchair, working hard to control her head tremors. Nelson works for Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), who represents a conservative bastion. “Too many families have seen their family members suffer,” Baker tells him. “It has come home.” On February 17, it came home to the Capitol as Baker joined several dozen other advocates, including physicians and patients, for the Texans for Medical Marijuana lobby day. Baker wheeled her way through the halls of the Capitol, stopping at offices to try to convince legislators to favor House Bill 658, which allows people with serious illnesses to use marijuana for medical purposes, as long as their physician approves. A whopping 75 percent of their fellow Texans believe that they should have that right, according to a 2004 Scripps Howard Texas Poll. But it’s a harder sell for politicians terrified of being portrayed as soft on drugs. Baker, 40, suffers from primary progressive multiple sclerosis and has found that marijuana relieves her pain, spasms, and tremors better than many of her prescribed medications—and without many of the debilitating side effects. HB 658 has bipartisan support and is co-authored by Rep. Naishtat (D-Austin) and Rep. Keel (R-Austin). It’s a baby step in the introduction of medical marijuana to Texas. The bill is written simply to protect patients who use the drug for medicinal purposes, not to make medical marijuana legal. It provides the patient with a defense for possession of marijuana if they can prove suffering from a bona fide medical condition and that they have had a discussion or recommendation from a physician about using marijuana to alleviate their medical condition. Unlike a similar bill filed in the 2001 legislative session that was left pending in committee, HB 658 also provides protection for the physician. “They [medical marijuana patients] are trying to stay alive. This is not about party time—this is about healthcare. We need to protect them, not prosecute them,” said Noelle Davis, the Executive Director of TMM, during the day’s opening press conference. In her lobbying, Baker highlighted the support medical marijuana and HB 658 have in the medical community. The Texas Medical Association recently adopted a policy that supports physicians discussing marijuana as a medical option. The conditions medical marijuana can help include cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis. “Marijuana is a marvelous medicine. It’s effective, inexpensive, and safe—it’s impossible to OD [overdose]. It’s a damn good medicine,” said Dr. Dana Copp, a retired physician, to a legislative aide while lobbying alongside Baker. OUR MAIN MENSCH The dean of the House’s diminishing Jewish Caucus celebrated his 60th birthday in February and the House goyim hammed it up in a resolution celebrating Elliott Naishtat’s contribution to public life in Texas. Naishtat, a displaced New Yorker with a personality so low-key it has been described as no-key, was recognized by his colleagues for his prodigious legislative output (his office is known as a public- and social-services bill mill). He was also recognized for bringing a rare New York yiddishkeit to a Texas House not exactly known for its ecumenical eclecticism. “Elliott,” according to the resolution, “always provides the gefilte fish at Pesach Seder—and not the cheap, low-salt kind, either; only the finest fish cakes will do when celebrating Passover, but you better arrive early if you want more than one piece…” The Democratic sexagenarian from New York could hold House freshman orientation sessions on the practice of dining well on a legislative salary of $7,200 a year. Among the whereases in the resolution was a paragraph that described Naishtat’s “uncanny ability to procure complimentary food by attending the season’s various social and political events; in fact, on more than one occasion since taking office he has eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with the occasional between-meal snack, at someone else’s expense.” Naishtat developed his grazing skills as a VISTA worker and did anti-poverty work in the sixties, before attending the school of social work and law school at the University of Texas. In the resolution, Naishtat’s colleagues affectionately refer to him as “the Hebrew Hammer, champion of the poor and needy,” recognizing, even in humor, Naishtat’s tireless dedication to a social services agenda he has shaped in the 16 years he has spent in the Texas House. Though Naishtat earned his position as chair of the House Human Services Committee, this session Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick exiled—that is, assigned—him to the committee on counties. As schmaltzy as it may be, H.R. 285 honoring Elliott Naishtat will be one of the better pieces of legislation enacted by the lower chamber of the Legislature this session.

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Published at 12:00 am CST