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House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is still on the hot seat in Austin, Texas, and Sears Department Stores are apparently going to help keep the heat up!
Just before the New Year, Sears agreed to cooperate in the investigation of illegal corporate campaign funding of Republican candidates running for the Texas House of Representatives in 2002. As a result, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is conducting the investigation, agreed to reduce the felony charges against the company to misdemeanors.
Sears is one of eight corporations indicted by a grand jury last summer for making illegal campaign contributions to Republican House candidates in Texas. Sears gave $25,000 to Texans for Republican Majority Political Action Committee, one of Tom DeLay's political action committees. The indictment alleges that TRMPAC then used the money illegally to assist Republicans win seats in the state House.
Earle has indicted three Republican operatives with close ties to DeLay for their role in soliciting and laundering these donations. Earle will use the information that Sears provides to buttress his case against the three and it's possible that more will be indicted including State House Speaker Tom Craddick and DeLay.
Sears is the second corporation to agree to cooperate with Earle's investigation. Earlier in December, Diversified Collections Services of San Leandro, California, which gave TRMPAC $50,000 made a similar deal with Earle.
As a result of the agreements, representatives of both companies will provide Earle with details about TRMPAC's effort to solicit illegal campaign contributions from corporations. Texas law prohibits corporations and unions from making direct campaign contributions.
Earle's investigation began in 2003 as a result of a complaint by Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. In August 2004, a grand jury returned indictments against John Colyandro, Warren Robold, and Jim Ellis. The three were charged with soliciting illegal campaign contributions, and Colyandro and Ellis with laundering them too.
Colyandro was the executive director of TRMPAC during the 2002 elections. Robold was a professional campaign contribution solicitor, who was hired to raise corporate money for the 2002 elections. Prior to 2002, he worked for the national counterpart to TRMPAC, Americans for a Republican Majority, which was established by DeLay to help Republicans maintain control of Congress. Ellis was for a time on DeLay's congressional staff. He also was the liaison between DeLay and Texas Republicans during the redistricting fight in 2003.
In December, Republicans in the US House passed new party rules that would allow DeLay to keep his post as majority leader if he is indicted. DeLay had the most to gain from Republican victories made possible by the corporate donations. The victories gave Republicans control of the Texas House, which made it possible to redistrict the state's congressional districts. As a result of redistricting, Texas sent five new Republicans to Congress, strengthening DeLay's power in Congress.
But when Congress convened in January, the Republican caucus staged a mini-rebellion
against DeLay and rescinded rules designed to protect him if he is indicted.
Some commentators see the rebellion as a sign that DeLay is losing his grip
on power because of his possible indictment and the ethics scandals that have
dogged him (Last year, he received three censures from his colleagues in the
House for unethical conduct).
Others are less sanguine. In an editorial, the Houston Chronicle, which supported DeLay's Democratic opponent last year, offered another assessment of the situation. According to the Chronicle, DeLay, who maintains strict party discipline within the House and rarely tolerates dissent, simply no longer fears indictment.
And there may good reason for his smugness. Earle will have a difficult time proving that the corporate donations were illegally channeled directly to campaigns. The state law upon which Earle is basing his charges was written long before there were political action committees and other similar intermediaries involved so heavily in elections.
The defense will argue that none of those indicted were political candidates and therefore did nothing wrong in accepting the corporate money. As for DeLay, he could argue that he was not directly involved in soliciting or distributing the money.
Earle has rightly identified the flood of corporate money that fueled the Republican
takeover of the Texas state government as a threat to democracy itself. Whether
he will be successful in staunching this threat is a whole other matter.