Texas GOP agrees to stop some campaign practices

Submitted by Sarah Gonzales on November 19, 2005 - 2:28pm. ::

Party to make changes in way it spends corporate money in return for deferred prosecution.

Friday, November 18, 2005
By Laylan Copelin

The Republican Party of Texas avoided prosecution Thursday by agreeing to stop using corporate money for some political activity.

Although party officials denied criminal wrongdoing, they signed an agreement with Travis County Attorney David Escamilla as he was preparing to present to a Travis County grand jury the results of his 18-month investigation into the GOP's 2002 campaign activities.

Escamilla's investigation, which is similar to one pursued by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle against U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay and the Texas Association of Business, will be put on hold through March 31, 2007. In return, the Republican Party of Texas agreed to stop using corporate money to pay for political consulting, voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts or advertising that mentions candidates.

State law generally prohibits money raised from corporations or unions from being spent in connection with campaigns. The law allows political parties to spend that money to run conventions and on administrative expenses, typically interpreted to mean overhead such as office rent, utilities, bookkeeping and other nonpolitical purposes.

But in 2002, the Republican Party, TAB, the state's largest business organization, and DeLay's political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, spent corporate money on consultants, fundraisers, phone banks or so-called issue ads that specifically mentioned candidates.

The Republican Party's agreement has no direct effect on felony charges against DeLay or TAB, both indicted on charges arising from Earle's investigation into the use of corporate money during the 2002 legislative elections.

But campaign finance activists said the agreement underscores "a broader conspiracy" by Republicans and their corporate allies to hide the use of corporate money in the pivotal elections that led to the Republican takeover of state government.

"They literally had a fire sale with our public institutions," said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. "They brought in $10 million of corporate money. And that corporate money bought policies for special interests — policies that have harmed consumers, workers and families of Texas."

Officials from Common Cause of Texas and Public Citizen, who filed the initial criminal complaint against the state GOP, praised Escamilla's investigation.

Escamilla, a Democrat, studied about 27,000 GOP documents, but his investigation ultimately focused on three instances of using corporate money:

•To pay $12,199 in postage for voter registration materials that included eight photos of statewide GOP candidates, including U.S. Senate candidate John Cornyn, Gov. Rick Perry and attorney general candidate Greg Abbott.

•To pay the Austin political consulting firm Olsen, Delisi & Shuvalov $49,600 to produce a mailer urging voters to cast ballots early.

The mailer included a letter from President Bush outlining the Republican agenda: "To keep building on our success, we must elect more Republicans to all levels of government. Please vote early for our Republican team."

•To pay the Guerra DeBerry Coody firm of San Antonio $3,706 for political consulting.

The Republican Party issued a written statement Thursday that said: "The Republican Party of Texas voluntarily cooperated fully with the County Attorney's Office as we were confident that our practices were appropriate, ethical and could withstand the scrutiny of an investigation. During this process, the parties tried to clarify unclear areas of the law where possible while recognizing bona fide differences in the interpretation of other areas of the law."

The three instances cited by investigators, however, represented only a fraction of the $5.7 million in corporate money that the party spent in 2002. The $5.7 million was a five-fold increase over what the the party spent in 1998 and about 10 times more than what Democrats received from corporations in 2002.

Under the agreement, the Republican Party of Texas agreed not to use corporate money for issue ads that mention a state or local candidate; to follow federal campaign finance restrictions against using corporate money in the final 60 days of an election to aid a federal candidate; to file the party's campaign finance reports electronically; and to specifically describe every transaction on its reports.

The GOP also agreed not to violate the state election code and to seek election-law training for its executive director and finance officials.

The agreement also defines what will not be considered administrative expenses: voter registration, phone banks, political consulting and fundraising except for the party's conventions.

The agreement expires March 31, 2007.

If the Republican Party violates the agreement, Escamilla can prosecute party officials based on the 2002 allegations as well as any new accusations before the expiration date.

The restrictions on how the party spends the corporate money also expire at that time, but it is anticipated that either the courts or the Legislature will address the issue of corporate money in campaigns before then.

"We are creating a more transparent political process that benefits the entire electorate," Escamilla said.