“It might surprise and even disappoint a few people to learn that this case is not about Tom DeLay.” So began Terry Scarborough’s opening argument for the defense in a civil suit against the treasurer of the political action committee Tom DeLay set up in Texas in 2001. The House majority leader won’t be in court in Austin, where a former Texas legislator who roomed with him 25 years ago, in the party house called “Macho Manor,” is defending himself in a suit filed by five Democrats who lost statehouse races in 2002. But no one looking for a DeLay connection to the proceedings could have been surprised or disappointed. In fact, after the first day in court, it’s surprising that no DeLay DNA sample was introduced into evidence and testimony that included an account of DeLay himself accepting an illegal $25,000 contribution.
The five plaintiffs claim that DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee raised and spent illegal corporate, or “soft,” money in the 2002 election in Texas. Specifically, they allege that of the $1.5 million TRMPAC spent in a campaign against 23 Democratic candidates for the Texas House, $723,737 was unreported soft money — which, with a few exceptions, cannot be spent in political campaigns in Texas. TRMPAC treasurer Bill Ceverha is the last defendant standing in the prelude to one more civil suit and a criminal case not yet on the docket in the state district court in Austin. (DeLay’s Washington political aide Jim Ellis and his Austin fundraiser John Colyandro have been dropped as defendants until the criminal case in which they have been indicted is resolved.)
Another DeLay housemate from Macho Manor, Bill Hammond, is not a defendant in this lawsuit. But he will be defending himself and the Texas Association of Business in a separate suit involving similar allegations about illegal corporate money spent in the 2002 elections. (His attorney sat in the courtroom taking notes.) And while no one from the Texas Association of Business has been indicted, they are not home free yet. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is expected to hand down additional indictments before the criminal trial, which is expected to begin sometime this summer. The D.A. is also looking into the TAB’s use of corporate money to fund mailings and issue ads that targeted Democratic candidates, while not overtly advocating the election or defeat of any specific candidate.
If the first day of this first trial provided any indication of what’s to come, the next six months will seem like an eternity for DeLay, even if he avoids indictment in Texas. Defense attorney Scarborough had it wrong. This is about DeLay. The Sugar Land, Texas, congressman who was known as “Hot Tub Tom” when he lived at Macho Manor, may not be in court in Austin, but the case — in fact the entire season of litigation — is all about him. “Tom DeLay was up to his eyeballs in it,” plaintiffs’ attorney Cris Feldman told National Public Radio reporter Wade Goodwyn a few days before the trial began. “It was Tom DeLay’s people, all the way down to his daughter, helping to run TRMPAC.”
In court Feldman was more specific, revealing for the first time that some of the corporate money, $25,000 to be precise, was handed directly to DeLay. In his opening statement, Feldman referred to a Reliant Resources lobbyist giving the House majority leader $25,000. In the plaintiffs’ exhibits is a letter (I found it in those exhibits six months ago) from Oklahoma-based Williams Companies conveying an additional $25,000 contribution — addressed to “Congressman Tom DeLay.” Williams is one of eight corporations indicted by the Austin D.A. Reliant was not indicted but is accused by Earle of giving an illegal contribution to TRMPAC fundraiser Colyandro.
The first TRMPAC document in the plaintiffs’ PowerPoint presentation included DeLay’s name at the top of a list describing the TRMPAC team. DeLay was placed at fundraising events in San Antonio and Houston. Warren Robold, one of the three individuals indicted by the Austin D.A., was identified as part of “DeLay’s network in Washington, D.C.” A Union Pacific lobbyist “needed a DeLay person to accompany him when he handed out checks.” And Danni Ferro’s role as event coordinator for TRMPAC was described by counsel for both the plaintiffs and the defendant. Ferro is DeLay’s daughter.
Without Tom DeLay, Bill Ceverha and Bill Hammond wouldn’t be defending themselves in two separate lawsuits. And DeLay’s fundraisers in Austin wouldn’t be facing the prospect of prison sentences — one as long as 99 years. “DeLay is wrapped up in the fact pattern of the case,” Feldman said during an afternoon break. “You can’t explain what happened without including him.” It is still possible that the Travis County D.A. and grand jury will include DeLay in a second round of indictments expected to come down later this spring.
This civil suit and the criminal case to come are all tied to DeLay’s calculated and successful attempt to win a GOP majority in the Texas House, where a Republican speaker would follow DeLay’s lead and redraw the state’s congressional lines. (Texas sent six new Republicans to Congress in the last election, expanding the party’s narrow majority there.)
DeLay’s problems have been easier to manage in Washington. After he was admonished three times by the House Ethics Committee, DeLay and Speaker Dennis Hastert replaced the Republican committee chairman, Colorado’s Joel Hefley, and added two new members to the committee, both of whom had made contributions to DeLay’s legal defense fund. While stacking the deck, the House leadership also rewrote the committee’s rules, ending the practice of automatically beginning an investigation 45 days after a complaint is filed. Investigations now require a majority vote, and the Ethics Committee is the only committee in the House that is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
It won’t be so easy to game the system in Austin. In 28 years in office, D.A. Earle, a Democrat, has built a career on prosecuting political corruption — mostly targeting members of his own party. He hasn’t faltered under constant public attacks from Republican legislators in Texas, who have threatened to cut the funds for his Public Integrity Unit. And he has taken his fight to the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times when Republicans in Congress have criticized him.
On the stand Monday the avuncular Ceverha used the Bernie Ebbers (former WorldCom CEO) defense, pleading ignorance of the day-to-day operations of the organization he directed. Decisions were made by DeLay’s handpicked operatives, Ceverha insisted; he had nothing to do with running the PAC while he served as treasurer. (Much of his defense was a calculated attempt to hold the already indicted Colyandro responsible for most of the PAC’s decisions.) The argument was credible. After all, the most culpable defendants had managed to avoid their day in court by getting themselves indicted on criminal charges. Their day will probably occur sometime this summer.