Last fall a group of well-connected Republicans formed a new lobby and consulting firm in Austin. The Patriot Group’s partners boast strong ties to Tom DeLay’s indicted Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC) and to Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) PAC-Texas’ most notorious and largest PACs, respectively. TLR worked closely with TRMPAC to help elect a Republican House majority in 2002. That new majority helped enact TLR’s agenda by capping medical malpractice damages and making it harder for consumers to file lawsuits against builders of lemon houses. Not long ago, operatives with these connections might have written their own tickets. Yet so far this year the Patriots have reported just nine lobby contracts worth up to $710,000-a seemingly anemic performance for such players.
One explanation is poor timing. The Patriots opened last October, shortly before voters disgruntled by the ruling party’s war and corruption took away some of the GOP’s seats in Congress and the Texas Legislature. When the Patriot Group announced its launch, executive assistant Haley Cornyn, daughter of U.S. Senator John Cornyn, told the Austin Business Journal that the Patriots soon expected to open a “very, very large D.C. shop.” After the midterm elections a few weeks later, however, special interests in Washington rushed to hire another breed of lobbyists: those peddling stroke with the new Democratic majority. The new year has not improved this business climate. As the case against DeLay crawls along in Texas, a Democrat represents DeLay’s old district. Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, TRMPAC’s federal cousin, went out of business. And Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick-the leading beneficiary of DeLay’s meddling in Texas’s 2002 elections-confronts another mutiny within his own ranks. Such times will test even pedigreed Patriots.
The Patriot with the closest ties to TRMPAC is Kevin Brannon, a longtime aide to former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm. TRMPAC hired Brannon in 2001 to identify which candidates it should back in its quest for a Republican House majority. As part of this vetting, Brannon often asked candidates if they would support Midland Republican Rep. Tom Craddick to be the new Speaker. TRMPAC then paid Brannon to work directly on some of these campaigns. Today two of Brannon’s three lobby clients at the Patriot Group boast TRMPAC ties. Client AT&T contributed $20,000 in corporate funds to TRMPAC. Brannon also lobbies for the Association of Electric Companies. One of its members, Reliant Energy, contributed another $25,000 to DeLay’s now-indicted PAC.
The single largest contributor to both TRMPAC and TLR is Houston homebuilder Bob Perry. This wealthy recluse’s public spokesman, Anthony Holm, brought Bob Perry’s business with him when he joined the Patriots. Holm declined to comment on the Patriot Group’s business for this column. Another top underwriter of both TRMPAC and TLR, San Antonio hospital-bed magnate James Leininger, also boasts Patriot ties. Patriot general counsel Marc Levin runs the Center for Effective Justice at Leininger’s conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Former Phil Gramm aide Matt Welch ran Texas’ largest PAC at TLR before joining the Patriots. In 2003 a grand jury in the TRMPAC case subpoenaed Welch to testify on the extent to which TLR and TRMPAC coordinated political activities the year before. With the Patriots Welch lobbies for TLR as well as Maritime Jobs for Texas, a new tort reform group pushing legislation on behalf of dredging companies and other shipping interests. If Gov. Rick Perry signs this legislation (HB 1602), as expected, injured dredging workers will be required to sue their employer in the county where the injury occurred or where their employer’s headquarters are based. Currently injured dredging workers can file such cases in their home counties. As a result, Maritime Jobs and TLR argue that more than 100 such cases have been filed in recent years in South Texas, where Hispanic judges and juries are considered sympathetic to such claims. For their part, dredging companies have recruited heavily from this impoverished Hispanic region in their search for relatively low-cost labor to do dangerous dredging work.
HB 1602 could be called the Buz-bee Bill, after Houston-area lawyer Anthony Buzbee. Last year this attorney for numerous injured dredgers made a presentation to a conference of maritime defense attorneys-including one who secretly recorded his remarks. In his talk Buzbee extolled the Rio Grande Valley’s Starr County as a plaintiff’s dream. “That venue probably adds about 75 percent to the value of the case,” Buzbee said. “You’ve got an injured Hispanic client, you’ve got a completely Hispanic jury, and you’ve got an Hispanic judge.” Patriot Group founder Denis Calabrese, a longtime spokesman for TLR, told The Wall Street Journal in February that his client widely circulated Buzbee’s remarks as a persuasive argument for dredging-lawsuit restrictions.
Patriot Jill Warren previously lobbied for Rudy Giuliani’s Bracewell & Giuliani, where 11 clients paid her up to $630,000 last year, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. One of Warren’s Bracewell clients, private prison giant Cornell Companies, gave $10,000 in corporate funds to TRMPAC. It was TRMPAC’s expenditure of such taboo corporate funds that made prison a potentially personal matter for Tom DeLay. Warren, who made an unsuccessful run for the Texas House in 2000, still represents one old Bracewell client, ORYXE Energy. Texas regulators have certified ORYXE fuel additives for use in smoggy areas where low-emission diesel has been mandated.
Warren and two other Patriots lobby for the Genocide Intervention Network’s Sudan Divestment Task Force. The Texas Legislature recently sent Gov. Perry legislation (SB 247) that would require state pension funds to divest from companies doing business in Sudan-where up to 400,000 people have been killed in state-sponsored ethnic violence. Unlike the liberal-led South Africa divestment campaigns of 25 years ago, the Sudan divestment movement has garnered support from liberals and conservatives alike.
The Patriot Group’s Web site lists another client that has yet to report any Texas lobby contracts. The Coalition for Breathing Safety represents respiratory-mask manufacturers that want protection from lawsuits if their products fail to protect users from hazardous particles. Playing the fear card, the group warns that silica lawsuits may leave America without adequate respirators in the event of a flu pandemic. The coalition hired Bracewell & Giuliani to lobby Congress shortly after Rudy Giuliani joined the firm in 2005. This prompted an International Association of Fire Fighters spokesman to tell Bloomberg News recently that the former 9/11 mayor was more concerned with dollars than “the lives of first responders.” Giuliani said fire fighters resent him for opposing their demands for pay raises when he was mayor of New York City.
The Patriot Group’s all-Republican political clients include Congressman Mike Conaway (Midland), Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, and state Reps. Brandon Creighton (Conroe), Rob Eissler (the Woodlands), Dan Flynn (Van), Dan Gattis (Georgetown), Brian McCall (Plano), and Tan Parker (Flower Mound). Other Patriot clients that do not appear in the group’s lobby registrations include Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (a Marc Levin related tax-revolt group), the Governor’s Business Council (along with its Texans for Excellence in the Classroom) and Power Across Texas, an energy think tank formed by ex-Texas Public Utility Commission chair Rebecca Klein.
Given its heavyweight connections,
it is surprising that the Patriot Group has kept a low profile and has not grabbed a larger slice of Texas lobby contracts. The Patriots collectively report that nine lobby clients are paying them up to $710,000 this session, or little more than Jill Warren alone reported when she was at Bracewell & Giuliani. Is even Texas becoming a tough business climate for TRMPAC and TLR operatives? Or are these for-hire Patriots motivated by something other than money?