AUSTIN, Feb. 28 -- A high-profile civil trial opened Monday on allegations that the treasurer of a political action committee created by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) illegally raised and spent corporate campaign funds in the 2002 election that led to a GOP takeover of the Texas Legislature.
DeLay has not been accused of any wrongdoing, nor has he been subpoenaed in the case. It was brought by five Democrats who said they lost their bids for state House seats as a result of illegal campaign contributions.
DeLay, one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, played a key role in pushing a redistricting plan through the new GOP-controlled state legislature that helped defeat four veteran U.S. House Democrats in 2004. Three of his political associates were indicted by a Texas grand jury last year as part of an investigation into illegal corporate contributions to state legislators.
The five plaintiffs sued Bill Ceverha, treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), the group created by DeLay to help engineer a GOP takeover of the state legislature. The Democrats charged in their suit that the group used $600,000 in corporate money for political purposes and failed to report the funds to the Texas Ethics Commission, in violation of state election law. They said the money was funneled into about 20 state House races that resulted in Republican control of the Texas House for the first time in more than a century. State Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland became state House speaker and subsequently oversaw congressional redistricting in 2003 that favored Republicans and was unsuccessfully challenged in court by Democratic state lawmakers.
Ceverha's attorney, Terry Scarborough, disputed the allegations and sought to distance his client from DeLay during opening arguments. Scarborough emphasized that his client played a minimal role in the operation of the group, which raised more than $1.5 million in the 2002 election cycle.
"This trial is not about Tom DeLay. This trial is not about Tom Craddick," Scarborough said. "Today's trial is about Bill Ceverha. . . . Ceverha's involvement was minimal."
The trial is being heard by state District Judge Joe Hart, without a jury.
"Nothing was done wrong," Scarborough said during a court break. "What really matters is how we spend our money. . . . We properly accounted for those corporate dollars."
Since the suit was filed in 2003, a parallel criminal investigation was launched into TRMPAC's activities by Travis County District Attorney Ronald Earle. That probe led to the indictment of the three DeLay political associates. Moreover, eight companies were indicted for illegal political contributions, although charges against three of them were dropped. Those companies have agreed to cooperate with Earle's investigation, which is continuing.
The civil trial, expected to last through the week, is the first public look into whether TRMPAC broke the state's campaign finance law in its mission to "help Republican candidates successfully run and win campaigns in Texas," as written in the group's mission statement.
Attorney Cristen Feldman, representing the Democrats, argued that the political action committee and its treasurer, Ceverha, broke the law.
In his opening statement, Feldman exhibited e-mails and other documents that discussed TRMPAC's goals and activities and that named DeLay as the chairman of its advisory committee.
"This case is about basic laws protecting the integrity of the political process," Feldman said in his opening statement.
Feldman spent more than an hour laying out his case against the political action group, saying that it was created to target vulnerable Democratic seats to win back control of the state House. He said TRMPAC's mission was soliciting and spending corporate money that "it didn't report and used to elect a specific House speaker."
He cited a notice sent out to potential corporate donors that said that "rather than just paying for overhead, your support will fund a series of productive and innovative activities designed to increase our level of engagement in the political arena."
Feldman charged that part of the corporate money raised by the group was used for paying for political consultants to monitor some of the targeted races, for identifying Republican voters through a phone bank and for other fundraising activities.
The attorney also asserted that TRMPAC gave $190,000 in corporate money to the Republican State Election Committee, which is an arm of the Republican National Committee. The Republican State Election Committee in turn donated funds to seven Texas GOP state House candidates, he charged.