AUSTIN, Texas – A high-stakes political fund-raising trial began Monday as Democrats argued that the treasurer of a committee formed by House Republican Leader Tom DeLay (search) broke the law by using corporate money to get GOP legislative candidates elected.
"This case is about basic laws protecting the integrity of the political process," attorney Cris Feldman said in opening statements on behalf of five Democrats who lost legislative races to Republicans in 2002.
GOP victories that year gave the Texas House its first Republican majority since the 1870s and propelled Rep. Tom Craddick to speaker. Craddick and DeLay later pushed a redistricting plan through the Legislature that resulted in today's commanding GOP advantage in the state's congressional delegation.
The five Democrats are suing Bill Ceverha, treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority (search). They contend the organization used $600,000 in corporate money for political purposes and did not report the money to the Texas Ethics Commission (search), all in violation of state election code. The use of corporate money for political purposes is illegal in Texas.
Plaintiffs' attorneys displayed in court e-mails and handwritten notes made by principals of the committee that they said proves corporate money was improperly spent.
Ceverha's attorney, however, told Judge Joe Hart that the political committee operated above board, filed the government reports it was supposed to and didn't hide its aim of electing Republican candidates. Attorney Terry Scarborough said the money that the group donated to GOP candidates was legal and not from corporations.
He claimed that the plaintiffs are merely losing candidates who are trying to win as much as $24 million in damages. The plaintiffs didn't specify what amount they were seeking.
DeLay has not been charged with any crime and has congressional immunity from being forced to testify in the civil lawsuit.
Ceverha testified that DeLay was never involved in the few informal conference calls leaders and board members of the political committee held when they decided which candidates to support.
Evidence in the civil trial may parallel some evidence under scrutiny in the ongoing criminal investigation. At the center of dispute is what is legally considered political and what is considered an administrative expense.