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Austin D.A. Investigating Alleged Violations of Campaign Finance Laws

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: The 20-month investigation targets corporate campaign donations that may have helped elect Texas legislators, who in turn furthered Republican redistricting efforts. That's an illegal use of campaign money under state law. Some corporate funds allegedly passed to Texas through House Majority Leader Tom Delay's political action committee. The Texas Association of Business, or the TAB, solicited nearly $2 million from businesses for legal political use, according to the group. But some aren't so sure.

Harvey Kronberg, editor, Quorum Report: Of course, we don't know who contributed to the Texas Association of Business.

Zeeble: Harvey Kronberg edits the online journal, The Quorum Report.

Kronberg: Because the money was solicited from corporations on condition their identities would remain secret.

Zeeble: TAB spokesperson Kathy Dewitt says her organization's members seem unfazed by the Ronny Earle investigation, but she acknowledges that so far this year, fundraising is down.

Kathy Dewitt, spokesperson, Texas Association of Business: The only voter education effort that was so significant was this last one, our largest, which was at 1.6 million.

Zeeble: But for this election season, Dewitt doesn't expect nearly as much money will be raised.

Dewitt: I don't think there are as many elections out there that'll warrant that.

Kronberg: The question was whether the mail program used was for general education as they claim, or a campaign to beat targeted Democrats, which on its face - look at those mailers - it's hard to argue it was simply educational.

Zeeble: On the state's Ethics Commission website, it's easy to gauge contribution cut backs from some large companies. In 2002, AT&T, for example, distributed more than $168,000 to Texas candidates and political organizations. So far in 2004, $12,500. AT&T had no comment for this story. Former lobbyist and consultant for both Republicans and Democrats over the years, Kim Ross, says the Ronny Earle investigation is the reason.

Kim Ross, public affairs consultant and former lobbyist: In a town that travels on gossip and paranoia, the fear and loathing index is ramped up considerably. It's that whole Western shootout pre-phase, where someone says "It's quiet. Too quiet." Everyone's pulling their horns back.

Zeeble: Big donors, says Ross, are waiting to see where the investigation goes. Democratic strategist Kelly Fero says it has rallied Democratic donors.

Kelly Fero, Democratic strategist: And their money is way up and I've heard no bragging from Republicans, and you generally do, so perhaps their money is off.

Zeeble: Harvey Kronberg says corporate donors that gave to the Republican-aligned TAB are just being smart before giving the organization more money.

Kronberg: It would be a foolish corporation who would give to someone under a grand jury investigation for misuse of corporate dollars in campaigns.

Zeeble: Meanwhile, the Austin D.A.'s investigation continues. It may also look at funds allegedly passed to Texas through House Majority Leader Tom Delay's political action committee. Gregg Cox is with the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.

Gregg Cox, Travis County Public Integrity Unit: This is so complex. Every time you turn over one rock, you have to look under another.

Zeeble: Cox says the grand jury in Austin has been extended through September. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.

Email Bill Zeeble about this story.