AUSTIN, Texas – The treasurer of a political action committee formed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) broke the law by not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, a judge ruled Thursday in a lawsuit brought by Democratic candidates.
State District Judge Joe Hart said the money, much of it corporate contributions, should have been reported to the Texas Ethics Commission (search).
The judge ordered Bill Ceverha (search), treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority (search), to pay nearly $200,000 in damages. It will be divided among those who brought the lawsuit against Ceverha — five Democrats who lost state legislative races in 2002.
The civil case is separate from a criminal investigation being conducted by the district attorney in Austin into whether the PAC funneled illegal corporate contributions to GOP candidates for the state Legislature. Three of DeLay's top fund-raisers and eight corporations were indicted last year. Ceverha has not been charged.
DeLay has not been charged with a crime and was protected by congressional immunity from having to testify in the lawsuit, but he has been barraged on Capitol Hill with allegations of unethical conduct.
As he walked into a lunch with fellow Texas Republicans in Washington, DeLay said of the ruling: "I haven't read it yet. All I know is that it happened."
His lawyer Bobby Burchfield said, "The ruling nowhere mentions Tom DeLay, and that confirms what we've been saying all along — that the dispute really has little if anything to do with Tom DeLay."
In the civil case, the Democrats claimed that Ceverha violated a state law designed to keep elections free from "the taint of corporate cash." They said corporate money donated to the PAC was spent on political research, polling, mailing, fund-raising and conferences.
Under Texas law, corporate money can be used by PACs for administrative purposes, but not for direct campaign expenses. In his ruling, the judge dealt with the election code reporting requirements, not with how the money was spent.
Hart found that contributions of corporate and non-corporate money totaling $613,433 should have been reported by Ceverha, along with expenditures of $684,507.
Ceverha's lawyers argued in court that the PAC operated legally despite confusing campaign funding laws.
The plaintiffs welcomed the judge's ruling as a good first step in rooting out illegal corporate spending during the 2002 Texas elections.
"It sheds light on the illegal acts of Texans for a Republican Majority," said attorney Cris Feldman. "This is only one part of the larger battle."
Ceverha lawyer Terry Scarborough said the case will be appealed, and he suggested that the Democrats are mostly just angry over losing the elections.
During the 2002 legislative elections, the Republicans won control of the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction. The GOP later used its majority to redraw Texas' congressional districts and send more Republicans to Capitol Hill.