Political Intelligence

Singing, Soot, Settled, and Sacrificed


John Colyandro, executive director for Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), sent the e-mail at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, September 25, 2002. It went to Jim Ellis, whom TRMPAC’s treasurer has called “the decision-maker on the PAC” and to Warren RoBold, the Virginia-based corporate fundraiser. Both men worked closely with U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land). Fifteen days earlier, Colyandro had sent a blank check to Ellis. Three days after that, Ellis, who was executive director of DeLay’s national PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority, filled in the TRMPAC check for the amount of $190,000 and gave it to Republican National Committee officials including political director Terry Nelson.

Today, that $190,000 has become the crux of a high-stakes legal poker game between the Travis County District Attorney and Tom DeLay; spawning felony money laundering indictments of DeLay, Ellis, and Colyandro. The DA alleges that $190,000 in corporate “soft” money that cannot legally be used on political candidates was laundered through the RNC in a TRMPAC-led conspiracy to have it sent back to certain state rep candidates as fungible “hard” money. In addition to the check, prosecutors allege Ellis gave Nelson a list with the candidates and the amounts. The lawyers for DeLay, Ellis, and Colyandro insist that the money sent to the RNC and the money that came back were in no way connected.

Almost two weeks after Ellis gave the RNC the $190,000—the largest single expenditure TRMPAC would make—Colyandro wrote his September 25 e-mail to inform the two men that state Senator Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), a TRMPAC board member, would be going to Washington, D.C. the following week. “Might it be worth her time to visit with anyone at NRCC or RNC about shaking dollars loose,” asked Colyandro.

The e-mail raises a question: Why would the men need money from the RNC after just sending it a third of the total amount of corporate money TRMPAC raised? Why send it in the first place?

Colyandro went on: “[Shapiro] is VERY[sic] well respected by the White House (GWB & Rove) – a comment from her, if it got back to Melmann[sic], would be received appropriately.” (He refers here to White House Political Director Ken Mehlman.)

It’s curious that the men would need the help of someone to intervene on their behalf. What problem could the RNC or any Republican have with the majority leader’s plan to stock the Texas Legislature with his partisans, who would then vote exactly his way for congressional redistricting, and ensure GOP dominance of Congress for years to come?

Colyandro sent his e-mail at an interesting moment of limbo in the history of the $190,000 (see, “Tommy and the $190,000,” October 21, 2005). If it was a straight up transaction, as prosecutors allege, why did it take so long to get back to Texas? Bureaucracy? Qualms at the RNC?

On October 2, 2002, DeLay met with Ellis and the two appear to have discussed the $190,000. The next day, the RNC cut seven sequential checks numbered from 7470 to 7476 to Texas state representative candidates. The rest, as we know, is history.

A spokeswoman for Shapiro says that, indeed, the senator’s 2002 calendar puts her in D.C. during the time mentioned in the e-mail. She traveled to the nation’s capital, for a White House Conference on Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children. “She serves on President Bush’s task force for that,” notes Jennifer Rice, Shapiro’s press secretary. While in D.C., Shapiro managed to steal away from the conference for a visit to the RNC to make fundraising phone calls for the National Republican Legislators Association, for whom she was president at the time.

“John Colyandro did not ask her to intervene for TRMPAC on that trip,” says Rice. “If he wrote that to RoBold, he never followed through on her end of it.”

Song of Scanlon

Who is this guy? He was Michael when he worked for Republican Congressman Michael Flanagan in the mid-nineties. He was Sean while he served as a member of the Kensington, Maryland, City Council until he quit in 1998, because he frequently failed to show up for work and council functions. He’s Michael P.S. Scanlon in the criminal complaint filed in federal court by the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity and Fraud Sections. Whatever you want to call him, on November 17 Scanlon flipped and turned state’s witness in the biggest lobbying scandal in the history of the Congress. The Department of Justice alleges that Scanlon worked in collusion with lobbyist Jack Abramoff (no big secret), who, would hire on with casino-rich Indian tribes, then insist they pay Scanlon for grassroots work and public relations. Scanlon secretly split his earnings with Abramoff, who as a registered lobbyist was required to publicly report all client billings. The total take from the six tribes the two men were working is now estimated to be $82 million. And after two years of investigating, the Department of Justice is rolling out its first indictments.

None of this is good news for the former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Abramoff and Scanlon told Indian clients, “If you hire us, you get DeLay.” And DeLay was a frequent beneficiary of their largesse once they started bilking Indians. If it’s bad for DeLay, at the moment it’s worse news for Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney. Just as there is no doubt that Abramoff is the party referred to as “lobbyist A” in the eight-page criminal filing handed down in Washington on November 17, there is no doubt that Ney is “Representative # 1.”

What’s bad news for DeLay and Ney is good news for the Tigua Indians. They’re not opening the champagne in El Paso yet, but for Bob Ney it’s finally “Tigua Time.” In December 2004, a source close to the tribe informed the Observer that FBI agents were asking tribal leaders about specific dollar amounts contributed to Ney—and what he might have promised in return. According to the source, Ney promised he would insert a provision in the Help America Vote Act that would reopen the Tigua casino, closed by U.S. Senator John Cornyn when he was Texas attorney general. As the Tigua’s lobbyist, Abramoff directed the tribal council to make a $32,000 contribution to Ney’s political action committee and said the tribe needed to pick up part of a $100,000 tab for Ney’s trip to St. Andrew’s Golf Course in Scotland. On August 3, 2002, Bob Ney and his wife; former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed and his wife; and several of Ney’s staffers joined Abramoff on a private jet bound for Scotland. (Also traveling to Scotland was Bush White House official David Safavian, the former chief of staff of the General Services Administration recently indicted for taking the trip, then failing to disclose it.)

Before Ney boarded the jet, the deal he allegedly promised the Tiguas was already dead. Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd had told Ney on July 25 that there was no way he would insert the Tigua casino provision in his Help America Vote Act. Dodd’s hands are clean. But U.S. attorneys are looking for proof that Ney offered to perform a service for the Tiguas in exchange for the campaign contribution and the golf trip. (The cash-strapped Tiguas persuaded another tribe to pay for Ney’s golf trip.)

The El Paso tribe is looking for some vindication in Ney’s prosecution. They also want some justice for the sanctimonious Ralph Reed. Abramoff had secretly hired Reed to ensure that the Tigua casino was closed by Cornyn and that the Texas Legislature wouldn’t pass a bill to reopen it. After the casino was shut down, Abramoff approached the Tiguas with an offer to reopen their casino, which is how he hooked up with Bob Ney. Abramoff charged the Tiguas more than $4 million. (Reed’s claim that as a Christian he opposes all gambling and had no idea that he was being paid by casino interests has been proven false by e-mails the Senate Indian Affairs Committee released this month.)

When Abramoff asked the Tiguas to fund Ney’s trip, he reminded them that he had already done a similar trip for “another member — you know who.” We now know that “you know who” was Tom DeLay, who traveled to Scotland to play golf at St. Andrews in 2000. DeLay has been informed that the Department of Justice is looking into his Scotland trip. The feds even sent investigators to London to interview Lady Margaret Thatcher. DeLay’s brief visit with the former British Prime Minister convinced House Ethics Committee members that the golf outing was really an “educational trip” for a member of Congress. The Justice Department isn’t buying it. The London Daily Mirror quoted a leaked British government memo explaining why Lady Thatcher was questioned. “U.S. officials are investigating whether Abramoff was involved in obtaining legislative assistance from public officials in exchange for arranging and underwriting trips to the U.K.,” the document read. “It is alleged that Abramoff arranged for his clients to pay for the trips to the U.K. on the basis that Congressman DeLay would support favorable legislation if they paid for the trip.” Both DeLay and Ney deny any wrongdoing.

“It’s the rush for the courthouse door,” said Melanie Sloan, a former U.S. prosecutor who now runs the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. Targets of the investigation are beginning to trade cooperation for lighter sentences. The criminal “information” filed against Scanlon in Washington includes one count. There will be many many more to follow, and they will extend far beyond Michael P.S. Scanlon.

Coal War, Part Deux

In October 2005, Gov. Rick Perry ordered the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to expedite the permits for new power plants in the state. A month later, a few Central Texans got a say in the matter.

From November 14-16, teams of opposing lawyers battled over a contested air permit an out-of-state energy company needs for its proposed coal-fired power plant in Riesel, a town near Waco (see “The Coal War,” November 4). Lawyers for TPOWER, a grassroots organization that wants to stop the plant’s construction, set out to prove that the company, LS Power, had not explored the best and cleanest technology to reduce air pollution. They also contend the company failed to consider the impact on Dallas-Fort Worth air quality. LS Power’s lawyers argued that they had fully complied with all environmental and administrative rules in the permitting process. The judges heard testimony from experts from both sides. Under cross-examination, Kathy French, the LS Power employee who wrote the bulk of the air permit application, revealed that the plant site would contain piles of coal more than 100 feet tall; that the company has not done any geological investigations of the site pertaining to the water table; and that certain “startup and shutdown” emissions not included in the main air permit could render the company’s worst-case pollution scenario even more damaging than initially reported.

Environmentalists and industry executives await the outcome of the hearings anxiously since it could set the stage for six other proposed coal-fired plants around the state. A coal plant for generating electricity has not been built in Texas for 15 years. If TPOWER prevails in court, the Texas “coal rush” may be slowed considerably. “With the seven plants proposed, four just in Central Texas, we feel like this plant has got to be the cleanest possible,” said Robert Cervenka, a TPOWER founder and Riesel rancher.

It is unusual for an air permit for a power plant to be contested in court because most citizens don’t have money to pay for a lawyer and the technical issues are “so complex and so detailed that most citizens don’t have a chance to get their thoughts in order,” said Wendi Hammond, the lead attorney for the group. Hammond said they will appeal any unfavorable decision in Travis County District Court. The judges have until March 20 to send their recommendations to the TCEQ for a final ruling.

The RPT Avoids a Plea

This whole justice thing sure does take a while. On November 17, more than three years after the fact, a criminal investigation into how corporate money was raised and spent to influence the 2002 state campaign finally concluded. No, you didn’t miss a news flash: District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s odyssey-like inquiry into Tom DeLay and his cohorts is ongoing. Rather, it was Travis County Attorney David Escamilla who ended his 18-month investigation into the Republican Party of Texas’ (RPT) use of corporate money in 2002. The party poured more corporate cash—at least $5 million—into the 2002 election than anyone else. Yet the RPT has reached a deal with Escamilla that allows it to avoid prosecution as long as it restricts its use of corporate funds in upcoming elections.

Escamilla, who prosecutes misdemeanor charges, began his inquiry in mid-2003 after receiving a complaint about the state Republican Party’s campaign activities from the watchdog group Public Citizen. It’s illegal in Texas to use corporate money on political campaigns. Political parties in Texas can spend corporate money only on overhead, such as rent or other operating expenses. Last year, an Observer analysis of state Republican Party campaign filings revealed that the RPT used at least $2.9 million for electioneering activities such as a political phone bank, party mailers, voter lists, a registration drive, and “issue” advertising on behalf of candidates (see “Party Time,” November 19, 2004). The party’s expenditures in 2002 were part of a wide-ranging effort to take over the Texas House. In that effort, the DeLay-founded Texans for a Republican Majority and the Texas Association of Business allegedly funneled $2.5 million in corporate money into the campaign. Earle, who prosecutes felonies, has indicted DeLay and two colleagues on money laundering charges.

Escamilla uncovered evidence that the state Republican Party paid $49,600 in corporate money to an Austin consulting firm on August 22, 2002, for a voter registration and get-out-the-vote drive, according to the agreement. That’s in addition to $3,706 spent on a political consultant and $12,199 used for a voter registration mailer. The county attorney didn’t consider these corporate outlays to be purely administrative and was prepared to present the evidence to a grand jury.

Under the deal, the Republican Party admits no wrongdoing, but avoids prosecution in exchange for the RPT’s ag
eement to use corp
rate money for only clear administrative expenses, as defined in state law. The RPT also agrees to file public disclosure reports that “allow a reasonable person reading the report to determine what goods, services, or property … were purchased.” The party’s 2002 state and federal filings are so convoluted—a mess of transfers between a half-dozen different accounts—that some watchdog groups wondered if party officials weren’t trying to hide their activity. Also stipulated in the deal, RPT officials will take 10 hours of training classes on state election law (these kinds of ethics classes really seem to be a growth industry lately). Escamilla maintains the right to pursue charges until March 31, 2007, if the party doesn’t follow through on the agreement.

In a statement, the Republican Party of Texas spun its escape from prosecution as an example of its fiscal conservatism: “The agreement … is a victory for the taxpayers of Travis County and Texas. The parties have spared the Texas taxpayers the unnecessary drain of resources on long, drawn out, costly battles to clarify past laws that are vague and difficult to interpret.”

From Murder to Mercy

One rationale behind the death penalty: the ultimate crime, murder, is punished with the ultimate punishment, execution. Through this meting out of an eye for an eye, the families of the murdered see their suffering assuaged. Or at least that’s what some in the pro-death penalty victims’ rights movement believe.

But the equation is never quite that simple. At the National Anti-Death Penalty Conference held in Austin from October 27-30, relatives of murder victims found common cause with the families of convicted murderers who have been executed or are on death row, linked together in opposition to capital punishment through shared sorrow over the loss of lives. To kick off the conference, which included workshops, a protest march, and a film festival, 20 family members of the executed gathered for the first time to launch “No Silence, No Shame,” a campaign to draw attention to the damage wreaked upon their broken families. They participated in a ceremony in which each person laid two roses together—one for the individual executed, one for the murder victim.

At a workshop on reaching out to the families of murder victims and death row inmates, Robert Meeropol, who was six when his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were put to death by the U.S. government for spying for the Soviet Union (see “A Radical in the Family,” July 4, 2003), discussed his experience with the death penalty. Meeropol said that he grew up wanting to see the government officials who ordered his parents’ execution punished by death, but has since “come to view capital punishment as a human rights abuse.”

“Who speaks for the children of the executed?” he asked. “We know how many people are on death row, but we don’t know how many children have parents on death row.”

Also at the conference were a number of participants in “the Journey of Hope,” a 15-city Texas speaking tour of churches and schools led by relatives of murdered and executed individuals who share an opposition to the death penalty. Marietta Jaegar-Lane described her transformation into a death penalty opponent after her seven-year-old daughter was kidnapped in Montana and killed in 1973. “I came to realize to kill someone in my daughter’s name would be an insult to her life,” said Jaegar-Lane. “She was worth something more honorable, noble, and beautiful than a state-mandated death.” When her daughter’s killer called her exactly one year after the kidnapping to taunt her, Jaegar had been praying for him every day, learning to forgive. She was able to draw enough details out of the man for the FBI to identify and capture him.

George White, who was wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife and sentenced to life in prison only to be exonerated six years later, reminded the victims of their unique role. “We are storytellers, stories we wish we didn’t have to tell,” said White. “What is the journey? Planting seeds. It is up to you Texas folks to take these seeds and make them grow. We are family, related not by blood but by the blood of our family members.”