Texas Judge Won’t Drop Charges Against DeLay Fundraiser
A key figure in the Texas Republican Party and a former director of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s fundraising organization should stand trial on felony charges of money laundering, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Travis County District Judge Bob Perkins rebuffed a request by John Colyandro, the former director of DeLay’s political committee Texans for a Republican Majority, to throw out an indictment charging him with money laundering and accepting illegal campaign contributions.
Perkins indicated that he thought a second indicted DeLay associate, GOP political consultant and fundraiser James Ellis, should stand trial. But he said he would make that decision after an August hearing.
Colyandro’s lawyer, Joe Turner, said in an interview that he would appeal. Ellis’ lawyer, J.D. Pauerstein, also denied wrongdoing. Representatives of DeLay, who has not been charged with a crime, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The ruling marks the latest development in an ethics and corruption case that has dogged the GOP’s ascent in Texas.
Two judges -- Perkins and, in May, the judge in a parallel civil lawsuit -- have now ruled that a law restricting corporate money in elections is constitutional. The rulings undermine the foundation of the defense; the GOP has argued that its actions in the 2002 election cycle were protected by free-speech provisions.
That year, the Republican Party took simultaneous control of both houses of the Texas Legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time in 130 years. At DeLay’s urging, conservative leaders used their clout to draw new congressional districts in Texas, which gave the GOP a six-seat swing in last year’s elections, firming up the party’s control of Congress.
Democrats and watchdog groups have alleged wrongdoing ever since, largely because at least 22 legislative candidates received financial assistance from Texans for a Republican Majority, which acknowledges soliciting corporate contributions.
Texas law bans corporate contributions to legislative candidates, but Republicans say the law is an unconstitutional limit on free speech. “It criminalizes behavior that is protected by the Constitution,” Turner said.
The law is also so poorly worded that no one seems to understand it, Turner said. He said the GOP had hired experts to ensure its activities were legal. “Even the experts don’t agree,” he said. “How could a citizen?”
Travis County Dist. Atty. Ronnie Earle, who has brought cases against three DeLay allies in connection with the fundraising, said the law was clear.
The law allows political committees to spend corporate money on “administrative expenses,” which has historically meant items such as rent and electric bills. Republican leaders have argued that it should also cover such items as direct-mail campaigns and polling, which Earle suggested was improper.
“The judge’s ruling makes clear what we have been saying all along: The law means what it says,” Earle said in an interview.
Fred Lewis, director of Austin-based Campaigns for People, which works to reduce the influence of money in government, agreed. “It’s good rhetoric, but it ain’t good law,” he said of the Republicans’ argument. “That’s why they keep losing.”
Some observers in Austin believe GOP lawyers have pressed for a decision on constitutionality so they can appeal before Colyandro and Ellis stand trial. Their appeal will probably land at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The court’s nine judges are Republicans, and some believe the GOP’s claim could get a friendlier reception there. A win could gut the criminal cases before they go to trial.
“This is the United States and this is Texas, and judges run for election,” Lewis said. “So yes, I’m always worried about politics seeping into decision making. But I think they are going to get tried. That’s the way our system works.”