Houston attorney Chris Bell, the 2006 Democratic nominee for governor, won a $2 million judgment against the Republican Governors Association earlier this summer and received a $426,000 payment from Gov. Rick Perry's campaign earlier this year — all as a result of allegedly illegal RGA contributions to Perry at the end of the 2006 governor's race. Those awards don't go to Bell's campaign; under Texas law, they go straight into the candidate's pocket. Bell, a former congressman and Houston city councilman, finished in second in the four-way '06 contest, which also included Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who both ran as independents. Neither of the other candidates sued over the contributions, though they now might wish they had. The RGA has said it will appeal this summer's ruling.
Bell talked to the Tribune by phone recently about the lawsuit and its aftermath; an edited transcript follows.
TT: Tell us what the infraction was and why there was a settlement.
Bell: In the closing days of the 2006 race, when all of those reports have to be filed, a million-dollar contribution was made, or showed up as having been made, by the RGA to the Perry campaign. We thought it was a little strange at the time. R.G. Ratcliffe [of the Houston Chronicle] apparently had some of the same feelings and after the race decided to make note of it and track it and see what the RGA filed with the IRS, and learned that just prior to the contribution to Perry being made, that Bob Perry, the developer in Houston, had contributed over a million bucks to the RGA. So it looked like a fairly clever way to funnel Bob Perry's money into the Rick Perry campaign.
Audio: Chris Bell
Which would have been fine, if all the T's had been crossed and the I's had been dotted. But Buck Wood [Bell's attorney] agreed to look into it and thought there was bound to be some explanation for it and kept probing — and there wasn't an explanation for it. The RGA was not authorized to contribute money in the state of Texas and had no treasurer. And the proper forms that have to be filed if you're an out-of-state committee were not filed in this particular instance.
Many of the ethics laws in Texas are somewhat lacking. But there has always been a concerted effort to ensure transparency, and all of the laws are designed that way so that an opponent — or really, any member of the public — can find out who's contributing to political campaigns. In this particular case, there was absolutely no way for us to find out prior to the election who was really contributing that money to Rick Perry, and that's really the basis of the finding.
After the Oct. 6 debate, when the momentum started shifting in our direction, and John O'Quinn gave us — originally a million dollars, turned out it was $3 million — the Perry campaign immediately went on TV blasting us for taking all that money from a trial lawyer. That was a big part of their campaign.
O'Quinn had also vowed to give us all the money that we needed, and [Perry's campaign] had no idea what that meant. He wasn't going to just write a blank check, but they didn't know that. And so I think that a lot of their money was already committed, and they didn't know what that race was going to look like in the closing weeks, and I think they thought they needed to get a little bit more money in the coffers. The quickest way to do that was through Bob Perry, but I don't think they wanted to be guilty of the exact same thing that they had been banging us with for several weeks.
TT: What do you think the Perry campaign saw that the RGA didn't? They decided to settle and the RGA decided to fight.
Bell: I don't really know exactly what the motivation of the Perry campaign was, and they weren't required to say. We were set for trial last fall. That's when we went to mediation, and they opted to settle the case. This has been one of the misunderstandings of the whole thing: why the damages are so high. Well, the damages are statutory, and there's no real discretion there on the part of the court. It's set in law that if an infraction is found, then the damages are twice the amount of the contribution, and both the giver and the receiver of the contribution are liable for that amount. Since we were talking about two million bucks, it could start adding up.
TT: When did you realize the money would go not to your campaign but to Chris Bell?
Bell: Buck had told me that. I was a little bit surprised. I've never been in this situation before, and I never really had to look at it. I guess I kind of knew. I remember a guy who used to run for mayor here in Houston who would turn around and allege reporting violations.
TT: Kind of a money-maker?
TT: You weren't the only guy who ran against Rick Perry. Were you the only guy who had an action here?
Bell: No. Anyone who was a candidate in the race can file, and Carole and Kinky were certainly well aware of it, I believe. It was in the newspaper. It wasn't any big secret what was going on. They maybe just didn't research it or maybe just didn't care to pursue it. I don't know.
TT: Does it change your feeling about the outcome of the race? You won the lottery, but you lost the governor's race.
Bell: No, you know, the funny thing about it [is] I never really had a bad feeling about the governor's race. I entered that race with head held high and bright prospects for the future. The governor's race was a fascinating experience. I wouldn't trade the last month of that campaign for anything else in the world. I will admit that the preceding year and a half or so could be pretty grim at times. It was a fascinating, exciting home stretch that I greatly enjoyed. I don't have any regrets about the governor's race at all.