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Nothing Personal

Tom DeLay broke the law in order to grab power. That's unusual — most politicians steal money.

Tom DeLay broke the law in order to grab power. That's unusual — most politicians steal money.

The former United States House Majority Leader and two others were accused of illegally laundering corporate donations to his Texans for a Republican Majority PAC through the Republican National Committee, which in turn sent a like amount of non-corporate cash to seven Texas candidates chosen by TRMPAC. Republicans went on to win a majority in the Texas House in those 2002 elections, and the criminal investigations of how they did it began a few months later. DeLay was convicted on Wednesday; John Colyandro and Jim Ellis have yet to stand trial.

DeLay's trial — the first in the case — started eight years after that and more than four years after DeLay left office. The jury is still deliberating. What makes the case peculiar is that DeLay wasn't accused of trying to get rich. Contrast his case with other active rap sheets in Texas politics right now.

State Representative Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, has been convicted on charges of perjury and tampering with government records — he didn't properly report his income and assets on financial disclosure forms. His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 13. He didn't seek re-election this year, and his term will end in January.

Former State Representative Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, pleaded guilty earlier this year to a charge of under-reporting her income on tax returns. She got snared in a federal investigation of influence peddling in Dallas city government and stood accused of writing letters on behalf of a developer of low-income housing who had, in return, paid her rent and other bills and carpeted her house. Those charges were dropped as part of her plea agreement, and she was sentenced to a year in federal prison.

State Representative Tara Rios Ybarra, D-South Padre Island, is under indictment on charges she and several other dentists defrauded Medicaid. She has denied any wrongdoing. Her trial date hasn't been set, but she lost the Democratic primary for re-election to the House.

It turns out that the highly competitive political arena is not a great place to hide, even when voters hear the worst and ignore it. Political opponents are scrounging for dirt. While it doesn't always work out for the challengers, the courts sometimes pick up where the electoral process left off.

State Representative Joe Driver, R-Garland, ran for re-election this year in the wake of disclosures that he billed the state for official trips that were also reimbursed by his campaign. He repaid some of the money, blamed the transgressions on bad accounting, and cruised to an Election Day win.

The Democrat who was challenging State Representative Charles "Doc" Anderson, R-Waco, tried to make an issue of his outstanding federal tax liens. Voters didn't go for it; Anderson will return to the Capitol next year.

State Representative Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, admitted driving a Mercedes Benz owned by her husband's employer, who does business with the state. She won anyway.

Now that they're back in office, they'll find out whether their transgressions generated any interest in their local prosecutors' offices.

All of those officials were accused of doing something for financial advantage: lining their pockets, double dipping on expenses, cheating on taxes. DeLay's case is altogether different. Nobody said he was trying to get rich; he was trying to win a political fight, to gain power for himself and his party. He won, in the short term. Texans for a Republican Majority helped win the party its first majority in the Texas House since Reconstruction.

The Republican party, in turn, elected a speaker, redrew a congressional redistricting map that had been drawn by a panel of judges, upended the political careers of a handful of Texas Democrats and gave the national Republican party a majority in Congress. DeLay was elected majority leader.

Eight years later, DeLay's political career is over. He's done his perp walk, taken his lumps on Dancing with the Stars and gone on trial for the PAC's transgressions during the 2002 elections. Now he's been convicted and faces prison time of 2 to 20 years on one charge and 5 to 99 or life on the other. He is done — but his maps are still in place. The Texas congressional delegation, which stood at 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans before the maps were in place, now has 23 Republicans and only 9 Democrats. The only verdict that really matters, at least for the public — had already been returned before DeLay's trial began.

Inside Intelligence: Is He? Should He?

Our insiders do believe Gov. Rick Perry is running for president in 2012, and don't believe he should.

The latest Texas Weekly/Texas Tribune Inside Intelligence survey found 58 percent think the governor is in the race. But only 22 percent think he should run, while 70 percent say he shouldn't.

It's pure speculation, of course, and nobody knows how the political wheels will turn over the next 12 months or so leading into the 2012 elections.

And it doesn't appear that many people think Perry is a real contender. In an open-ended question, his name didn't come up that much. Respondents were asked, "What Republican do you think will have the best shot at the White House in two years, and who do you think will win?"

They came back with a lot of Mitt Romney and John Thune and Sarah Palin, but not a lot of Perry. Some of the verbatim responses follow, and you can see all of the responses — as well as the names of the people who took part this week — in the document here.

• "I think Mitt Romney will ultimately be the nominee for the party but to win in the general the running mate must be strategic. Perhaps a Haley Barbour or John Thune."

• "John Thune will win Republican nomination and White House."

• "If sanity reins in the land, probably Romney, if insanity reins, Palin. Mitch Daniels is also worth watching."

• "Far too early to tell who has the "best" shot, but Rick Perry, John Kasich, and Chris Christie have good shots should they take the plunge. Dr. Condi Rice is an interesting choice for running mate no matter who takes the nomination."

• "It is way too early to have a clue. 2 years ago at this time we were all ushering in the Age of Aquarius as Obama was being carried to the thrown. It is a different world now and will be in 2 more years."

• "PALIN. The perfect blend of outsiderism, kneejerk conservatism, pop culture icon and salt of the earth ignorance."

• "Given the election 3 weeks ago, Palin has the best shot if the Tea Party movement maintains its strength. Obama will win a 2nd term."

• "Rick Perry"

• "Mitt Romney would have the best shot IMO. Much depends upon how the R's behave over the next 18 months or so. Perry's opening could likely come through a "draft" at the Convention? Not sure "the moderate middle" is ready for another Pres from Texas?"

• "Assuming the Tea Party is still alive and kicking, there is no one better positioned to be the R's candidate than Rick Perry. The mid-term will force Obama to get his groove back and he should win re-election."

• "Jeb Bush probably has the best shot if he can overcome the Bush dynasty effect--he is probably the only one that can beat Obama."

• "Best Shot: John Thune Likely Nominee: Mitt Romney"

• "Not sure there's a Republican who can win the primary who can also win the White House."

• "Chris Christie. If the unemployment numbers drop significantly and consumer confidence starts improving Obama wins reelection but since that probably won't happen whomever the Republican nominee is will win"

• "Jimmy Carter won in 1976 because he was an absolute Washington outsider, from the opposite party, and from the opposite political philosophy. Rick Perry is the mirror image today of where Governor Carter was then. If the current trends continue, Rick has a chance to win the nomination and the Presidency. Many in Texas don't picture Rick as a possible President, but the path is there."

Pitts: Deep Cuts Coming

State budget writers will propose eliminating agencies, cutting others to a quarter of their current size and laying off state employees to balance the budget without raising taxes or using the state's Rainy Day Fund.

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, told an Ellis County group that the shortfall is also the reason lawmakers have talked about leaving the federal Medicaid program.

"We're making huge cuts," Pitts told the group. "There are agencies that are in existence today that we are eliminating when we introduce the bill. We are making some large cuts to some agencies that are not going away — up to 75 or 80 percent of their budget. That's where we are today, is doing those cuts. And yes, sir, I'm nearly there. But we may need to do some more. And what we may do is we may get furloughs, we are having hiring freezes, we have told the [Health and Human Services Commission] to do a freeze on our waiting list. There are numerous things we can come up with, but we are getting very close to being able to come up with that money without using the Rainy Day Fund."

Pitts was recorded on video by Brannon Bridge, who was shooting for the Ellis County Observer. That got posted on YouTube after the November 20 meeting.

Pitts was asked what might happen to state employee pension funds. He said the budgeteers are looking there, too. But he said the pension funds for state employees and state teachers are feeling the strains of the economy just like the state is. "None of the pension funds are actuarially sound," Pitts said.

State leaders have admitted they're considering withdrawing from the federal Medicaid program — a $45 billion part of the state's two-year budget. Pitts acknowledged that during his local appearance and says there is more to come.

"That's the purpose of our study of Medicaid, and Medicare, is to get out of it," he told the audience. "We are looking into getting out of Medicaid." He added that, in order to save money on that program, services would have to be cut.

"The Legislature is going to have to determine who would be eligible for certain things," Pitts said.

"Fewer people would be on our Medicaid rolls if we got out and saved money in the state of Texas," he said. "All of that is going to come out when this study is done."

The No Joe Show

The latest salvo in the Texas House speaker race is a slick Internet video that argues the House should have a more conservative speaker than Joe Straus. And it suggests a fight to come, visually knocking over dominoes featuring the pictures of "Republicans In Name Only" who could be targets in the GOP primaries two years from now.

The video describes Straus as an impediment to conservative legislation like Voter ID, questions his pro-life credentials, and suggests he'd be lining his pockets if he allows the House to vote on gambling legislation. It also features pictures of some other Republicans — on dominoes — who've been at odds with some of conservatives in the House: Jim Keffer, Vicki Truitt, Charlie Geren, Burt Solomons, Rob Eissler, and Byron Cook, over the line: "Fall of the RINOS: Republican Primaries 2012.

The video is on YouTube, posted by a couple of political people working under the "StopJoeInfo" shingle.

It's also being promoted on the website of a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Women on the Wall. They bill themselves as nonpartisans focused on "America's Children & Their Futures, Abandonment of our Founding Principles, Rapidly Decaying Culture & Society, The Sanctity of Life, Loss of U.S. Sovereignty, and Out-of-Control Immigration Policies."

That website is registered to Rebecca Forest of Austin, who has previously been involved with a group called Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas. They lobbied the Legislature last session for tougher immigration and border security laws. She's been involved, too, with other conservatives trying to knock Straus out of the Speaker's post. She was one of a long list of signers of a letter to that effect right after the election.

Forest says the ad was put together by Robert Hurlburt, who has an Austin ad agency and who, she says, put the video together "as an individual" and not for a client. He's also listed as the registrant of StopJoe.info, where the video can be viewed and where donors are linked up with Forest's Women on the Wall website.

Forest says she and Hurlburt worked together on Republican Donna Campbell's campaign for Congress and put this project together once the elections were over. She says they have received some donations, but not enough to put the video on commercial television, as they hope to do. "We're trying to put it on the air," she says. "It tells such an important story about what's going on in this state."

She says she doesn't have a favorite candidate for speaker: "Just anybody but Straus, really."

Hungry for a DREAM

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is once again the focus of a hunger strike by Texas college students, this time from the Texas senator's alma mater. The University Leadership Initiative, an immigration activist group at the University of Texas, announced Monday that eight UT students and several "allies" from across the state will refuse to eat until Hutchison pledges to support the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors) Act.

The act would allow students brought to the U.S. illegally before age 16 to obtain legal residency if they attend college or serve in the military for two years. The effort follows a similar display of solidarity last week by a group of students at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

"DREAMers have met with the senator and members of her staff on various occasions," said Loren Campos, a faster and the president of the UT group, in a statement. "She refuses to give us an answer one way or the other. We know that Senator [John] Cornyn is hopeless, but we expect better from Sen. Hutchison. She's always been level headed and usually puts public policy before politics."

The Week in the Rearview Mirror

It's possible that the only guy in the Texas House who is guaranteed a safe district on the new political maps next year is Bryan Hughes. The Corsicana Republican switched his allegiance in the speaker race to Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, from Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, saying a member of Straus' leadership team had drawn a link between supporting Straus and getting treated well in redistricting. Straus denied it. Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, and his General Investigating and Ethics committee looked into it (finding Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, was the member who'd talked to Hughes). Phillips denied it. And the committee decided that without anything but what Hopson called "he said, he said" testimony, there was no way to tell who was actually telling a true story. Joking aside, Hughes is in an area of the state where redistricting could easily pair incumbents — whether it's retribution or not.

Look behind those supporters for Paxton as if your name were Warren Chisum. The Pampa Republican — the first candidate to pop up against Straus — isn't getting support from his homeboys. Jim Landtroop and Charles Perry, from Plainview and Lubbock, respectively, are with Paxton. That puts a serious dent in any geographic argument for Chisum.

• Twenty days later, U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, conceded his 2010 race to his Republican challenger, Blake Farenthold, who finished nearly 800 votes ahead on Election Day. A manual recount found that Farenthold maintained his lead over Ortiz, who was first elected to represent CD-27 in 1982 and had never received less than 56 percent of the vote in his previous races.

• Speaking of recounts, Republican House candidate Dan Neil, who is trying to unseat Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, has finally decided to seek one. He filed paperwork with the secretary of state on Tuesday. Election night results show Howard winning by 16 votes.

• Would voters notice if three statewide officials disappeared from the ballot? The Sunset Advisory Commission has offered up the Texas Railroad Commission for that test, suggesting the agency be renamed the Texas Oil and Gas Commission, and then governed by a part-time, five-member board appointed by the governor. They get right to their point in their recommendation to lawmakers: "Critics would argue that elected commissioners pose a conflict for the agency’s regulatory role, as the costs of a statewide campaign often rely on campaign contributions from the regulated industry." Sunset was critical of the RRC's funding, saying they rely on general revenue while other regulatory agencies are supported entirely by fees on the companies and industries they regulate. They'd fix that by remaking the state's oil field cleanup fund as the oil and gas fund and using it to pay the costs of operating the agency. They recommend moving regulation of gas utilities to the Public Utility Commission.

John Frullo, R-Lubbock, got a jump on most of the freshman class; he's been sworn in as a state representative, filling the seat left open when Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, resigned earlier this year. Two other freshmen were sworn in earlier this year: Van Taylor, who replaced Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, and Eric Johnson, who replaced Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas.

• The office of Attorney General Greg Abbott weighed in on the back-and-forth between Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn over the latter's multimillion-dollar settlement with the Texas Windstorm Association. Taylor has been seeking details of the payout, and Mostyn got a temporary restraining order to stop him. The attorney general's opinion sided with Taylor, saying that "a court cannot order TWIA to withhold information" encompassed under the state's public information act "unless that information is expressly made confidential under other law."

• The Texas Lottery Commission renewed a 10-year operations contract with Rhode Island-based GTECH Corporation, the state's primary lottery vendor since its 1992 inception. The agreement, one of the largest awarded by the state, is worth up to $1 billion. Critics blasted the decision, citing performance issues and alleging a conflict of interest. "I believe the vendor and the lottery commission operate as one," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. "It eliminates competition — and if it's not competitive, we're not getting the best price for the operation."

• The campaign of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, was fined $800 for violations on her campaign finance reports. She said they were merely technical errors. The fine comes with a sense of déjà vu — Dukes was fined $2,800 two years ago for failing to disclose credit card purchases.

• The Sunset Advisory Commission's staff released their report on the Texas Railroad Commission. Their recommendation: get rid of the agency. They say it should be replaced with a similar entity — called the Texas Oil and Gas Commission — headed by five gubernatorial appointees instead of elected officials as it is now.

• According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas led the country in job gains in October with a total of 47,900. New York was close behind with 40,600, followed by California (38,900), Michigan (19,000) and Arkansas (17,400).

Political People and Their Moves

Jeff Rotkoff, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, is stepping down to take a job with Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn. Cliff Walker, director of the Mostyn-funded Back to Basics PAC, will replace him.

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Ida Louise "Weisie" Steen of San Antonio to chair the 2011 Texas Inaugural Committee. Steen, a regent of the Texas A&M University System, is a director of Frost National Bank and its parent company, Cullen/Frost Bankers Inc. Patty Huffines of Austin and Lana Andrews of Dallas were also named as vice chairwomen of the committee. Huffines is a former vice president of university relations for St. Edward's University, and Andrews is a partner at Andrews Distributing Co.

Recovering: U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, after heart bypass surgery. He expects to be back in Washington in January when the new Congress is sworn in.

Deaths: Greg Coleman, the state's first solicitor general (under then-Attorney General John Cornyn), in a plane crash in heavy fog in Florida. Coleman, the pilot, was 47. He was a name partner in the YetterColeman law firm and a widely respected appellate attorney.

Quotes of the Week

U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, after learning the results of his requested recount of the ballots cast on Nov. 2, which resulted in his defeat by Republican Blake Farenthold, to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times: "As this process comes to an end, I am at ease and peace with myself, my family, my colleagues in Congress, my constituents, life and, most importantly, I am at ease with God."

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, on whether or not U.S. Predator drones are meandering farther than the U.S. border with Mexico to obtain surveillance, in the Houston Chronicle: "Officially, no. I will leave it at that."

Houston Mayor Annise Parker to the Houston Chronicle criticizing a study released Monday calling Houston one of the most dangerous big cities in the country: "Everybody likes to do rankings of cities, and when we like the results of the rankings, we put them on our websites and when we don't like the results, we critique them."

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, on filing a bill that would allow schoolteachers to display the Ten Commandments in their classrooms: "For too long, we've forsaken what our Judeo-Christian heritage has been. Our rights do come from God, not from government."

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, assuring the audience at an event held by the Tarrant County Republican Assembly that he and fellow speaker candidate Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, are playing for the same team: "This is not between me and Ken Paxton. It's about unseating Joe Straus."

A jury note from the Tom DeLay trial, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman: "Can it constitute money laundering if the money wasn't procured by illegal means originally?"

Gov. Rick Perry on why he'd rather be governor than president, on Fox News, quoted in Talking Points Memo: "I think being the governor of a state like Texas ... is a more pivotal job in the future."

Rep. Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, in the Texas Watchdog, on his House committee's closed-door investigation of charges that one House member told another that redistricting protection was tied to support for House Speaker Joe Straus: "We want the public to know we are taking this seriously. We realize the public hasn't the greatest opinion of political bodies anyway, and so we are here to protect the reputation of the Texas House."

Barbara Bush, on Sarah Palin, from an interview with CNN's Larry King: "I sat next to her once, thought she was beautiful, and I think she's very happy in Alaska. And I hope she'll stay there."

Contributors: Julian Aguilar, Reeve Hamilton, David Muto and Morgan Smith


Texas Weekly: Volume 27, Issue 45, 29 November 2010. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2010 by The Texas Tribune. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 716-8600 or email biz@texasweekly.com. For news, email ramsey@texasweekly.com, or call (512) 716-8611.

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