Saturday, November 17, 2007

"You can't be a 'nothing' in Texas and give money to a candidate."

$1 million donation dogs Perry to national stage

Travis County attorney is reviewing 2006 donation from GOP group

November 17, 2007

By Laylan Copelin
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

As Gov. Rick Perry ascends the leadership ranks of the Republican Governors Association, jetting to the group's California meeting later this month, he and the association are dogged by questions about $1 million the group gave Perry last year.

Did Perry and the governors association, as alleged in a lawsuit by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, intentionally conceal the sources of the association's money? Or was it just a clerical error, as Perry says, that prevented Texas voters from knowing who was sending money through the association to the Perry campaign?

On Friday, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said he was reviewing the circumstances surrounding the two $500,000 donations given in the final 12 days of the 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Robert Black, Perry's press secretary, said Friday that he was checking with the campaign's lawyers to see if they would file the list of donors.

Meanwhile, although Perry has promised to fix the mistake, Black said that would not include returning the money.

"We did nothing wrong," Black said. "It was a clerical error."

State law requires out-of-state political committees — and the candidates who take their money — to disclose a committee's donors to the Texas Ethics Commission.

The Republican Governors Association provided a list of its individual donors to the Perry campaign, which then failed to file it.

The campaign also filed an inaccurate federal identifying number leading Texas voters electronically to the association's defunct federal political committee.

During the final days of the 2006 campaign, the sources of candidates' money became an issue when Bell took $2.5 million from one Texas lawyer.

With no public disclosure of who had donated to the Republican Governors Association, voters did not know that Houston home builder Bob Perry, who is not related to the governor, was the association's biggest individual donor. Bob Perry became a controversial figure, at least among Democrats, in 2004 when he underwrote Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which broadcast a series of ads questioning Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's military record.

Republican Governors Association officials say they didn't file their own report with the Texas Ethics Commission — as required of out-of-state committees — because they say they are not an out-of-state committee and therefore the state disclosure laws don't apply to them.

If the governors association is not a political committee under Texas law, what is it?

"The fact of the matter is, the law is not precise in pigeon-holing or defining what a group like the RGA is," said Ben Ginsberg, the association's lawyer, who helped lead the Bush-Cheney 2000 Florida recount. "The laws aren't always perfectly crafted to put everyone in."

It's an argument that, if correct, could open up the floodgates of anonymous money flowing through groups such as the Republican Governors Association into Texas campaigns.

Bell's lawyer, Buck Wood, said Texas law defines a political committee as a group with "a primary purpose" of raising and spending campaign money.

Calling the association's argument absurd, Wood said only individuals or political committees can give money to Texas candidates.

"You can't be a 'nothing' in Texas," Wood said, "and give money to a candidate."

In Texas, the law allows candidates to, in effect, enforce campaign finance laws by filing lawsuits. Civil penalties can be double the amount of an illegal donation and, for a candidate who acted with criminal intent, a violation is a misdemeanor.

By filing the lawsuit, Bell has become a stone in Perry's black boots (emblazoned with the Texas flag) as he is stepping onto the national stage for the pivotal 2008 elections.

On Nov. 29 and 30, at the association's annual conference in Dana Point, Calif., Perry is playing a prominent role at all of its events and, according to some, could be selected as the group's chairman.

Coming on top of his endorsement of GOP presidential candidate Rudy Guiliani, Perry's election as the leader of the Republican governors could add to his national exposure and clout.

The chairman's job is primarily about raising money. The association is a major political player on the national scene. In 2006, it raised more than $28 million, much of it targeted to gubernatorial campaigns, and is on a record fund-raising pace this year.

When then-Massachuetts Gov. Mitt Romney led the group in 2006, some news reports questioned whether he was directing the association's money into states that could help his 2008 presidential bid.;445-3617

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