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Republican PAC ordered not to spend, collect corporate cash

Thursday, October 21, 2004 by

No candidate is accused of wrongdoing

Travis County District Judge Paul Davis yesterday enjoined a major Republican political action committee, Associated Republicans of Texas (ART) PAC, from ”soliciting, accepting, and/or spending . . . any corporate or union treasury funds, as defined in the Texas Election Code." The injunction was entered at the behest of two Democratic candidates for the Texas House of Representatives, David Liebowitz of San Antonio and Bobby Glaze of Gilmer in East Texas. Cris Feldman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the ruling freezes ART's corporate account, preventing the PAC from spending or contributing to it.

According to the plaintiffs, ART is prohibited by the Texas Election Code (Section 253.100) from taking contributions from corporations. Judge Davis, a Democrat, agreed. The judge’s order says that ART PAC and its treasurer, Norman Newton, “have given and will continue to contribute to (the plaintiffs’) Republican candidate opponents.”

The order was signed late Wednesday afternoon. ART PAC did not return phone calls, but a staff person for the Republican Party of Texas said that the official party organization was not associated with the Associated Republicans of Texas. She said they were not paying attention to "frivolous lawsuits" so close to the election.

However, Pat Robbins of ART told the Quorum Report, “The whole purpose is to try and defeat two incumbents we are contributing to.” She said Democrats are “trying to do (to Reps. Bryan Hughes of Mineola and Ken Mercer of San Antonio) exactly what they are doing to Baxter and Stick–make it like they took illegal money. It ‘s just wrong . . . There has never been a group in the history of politics that has been more careful with corporate money than Associated Republicans.”

Records at the Texas Ethics Commission show that the PAC contributed to numerous Republican candidates, including Representative Todd Baxter, Representative Jack Stick, Duane McNeill, candidate for Travis County Sheriff and Thornton Keel, candidate for Constable Precinct 3. The PAC also gave $7,500 to Representative Ken Mercer of San Antonio, Liebowitz’ opponent. There is no implication that any of these candidates took money illegally or that the money they received from ART PAC came from corporations. The argument is considerably more complicated than that.

Because ART PAC is not affiliated with any controlling entity, such as ChevronTexaco, for example, ART PAC may not accept corporate or labor union money, according to attorneys for the plaintiffs. Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People explained the distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated PACs. “So, if you were Chevron, you could give money to your own PAC,” for administrative expenses, “but you could not give money to anyone else—corporate money,” he said. “The same would be true for the United Auto Workers.” The UAW couldn’t give union funds to any PAC, except to its own committee for administrative expenses.

So, if the political action committee got corporate funds that would pay for its own administrative expenses, it could save " hard” money—that is money from individuals—to give to candidates. So long as the money from individuals was enough to cover all the candidate contributions, there would not be a question of whether those contributions were legal. But Judge Davis has put it into that at least temporarily. Unless the PAC's attorneys can figure out a way to appeal the order, it will remain in effect until November 3, the day after the election.

Feldman, who is with Ivy Crews and Elliott, declined to speculate on what the ruling might mean for future elections, saying, “I don't know about broader repercussions. But what I do know is that this will force Associated Republicans of Texas to freeze their corporate account and make sure that there is not a taint on the election in 2004. The reason we're here today is to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. Everybody knows the abundance of the illegal corporate cash in the system has cast a shadow over state government, and this was a step in the right direction today.”

Among those listed as having donated to ART PAC this year are AT&T, Deloitte and Touche, KPMG, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, SBC, and Altria Corporate Services. The first three firms are well-known. The Linebarger law firm specializes in collections for governmental entities and has at least 20 offices in Texas, and some in other states as well. Altria gave ART $50,000 on March 17 of this year, the largest amount by far of on the organization’s list of corporate contributors.

Altria Corporate Services is the services provider branch of Altria Inc. formerly known as Phillip Morris. The company provides expertise and oversight in areas such as corporate affairs, finance, human resources, information and legal services to Altria’s operating companies, including Kraft Foods, Philip Morris International and Philip Morris USA. Altria was recently named by the Center for For Public Integrity as one of the top contributors to so-called 527 committees

Wednesday’s ruling will likely have little impact on the upcoming election, but does add to Republicans’ growing legal worries.

ZAP weighs in reluctantly on some Rainey proposals

When the topic of Rainey Street came up Tuesday night, Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker told fellow commissioners that she thought it was not the job of the ZAP to comment on proposed amendments to the City Code. But after some discussion, the Commission decided—at the prodding of staff member Greg Guernsey and Commissioner John — Donisi—that they were required to make recommendations on staff proposals for Rainey Street’s redevelopment.

At first, commissioners agreed to go along with recommendations made by the Planning Commission except for their earlier suggestions for zoning the area. The Planning Commission would allow more dense zoning for the entire area, while the ZAP wanted less intense development on Rainey Street itself. But once they started looking at the other panel’s recommendations in detail, ZAP members decided they could not concur on a number of items.

For example, the ZAP, like the Historic Landmark Commission, recommended against a staff proposal for an enclave of historic houses, meaning destruction of the National Register Historic District. The Planning Commission took no position on that proposal.

ZAP commissioners did agree to recommendations to construct the planned Waller Creek Pedestrian Bridge and construct a new trail along the northern edge of the Mexican-American Cultural Center site, preserve alley access but allow aerial development rights above 20 feet and prohibit drive-through services. The ZAP parted ways with the Planning Commission on extending Lambie Street. The City Council is scheduled to hear about all of these proposals and hold a public hearing on the zoning either at 4pm or 6pm today.

Waller Creek project on front burner for commission

The Downtown Commission has moved the Waller Creek tunnel project to the top of it work plan for next year after a better-than-expected run this year at rezoning the Rainey Street neighborhood in order to encourage redevelopment.

Council is expected to consider the rezoning of Rainey Street this afternoon. Whether the vote is up or down, it still signifies the most action on Rainey Street in a number of years. Now, Chair Perry Lorenz would like to apply that same elbow grease to the Waller Creek tunnel project, which appears to have stalled in the five months since Chief Financial Officer John Stephens presented the third cost-benefit analysis on the various project options.

Nothing about Waller Creek is specified in the commission's work plan yet. Last night, the Downtown Commission only went so far as to say the umbrella group – which represents most major groups affiliated with downtown — would monitor the Waller Creek project and advocate for it. Commissioner Chris Riley noted that it could be time to revisit some of the work on the Waller Creek project completed during community charrettes.

Commissioners also noted a need to revisit two other ongoing projects: the extension of Pfluger Bridge across Cesar Chavez and the continued support of residential development.

Craig Nasso has served as the Downtown Commission's liaison to the Pfluger Bridge Citizen Advisory Group. Nasso presented schematic drawings on the second phase of the Pfluger Bridge project, which is intended to take cyclists and pedestrians over Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Four options are being presented: an underpass ; an overpass with a northeast extension; an overpass through the middle of the Sand Beach property, connecting to Bowie; and a northwest arm to the bridge that would follow Lamar Boulevard and drop down onto Lamar at Fifth Street.

The residential development study, a suggestion of Commissioner Robert Knight, will be an extension of the commission's 2000 census work pushed by former chair Riley. Knight was interested in seeing how Austin's progress compares to cities of a similar density and demographics.

During last night's meeting, the Downtown Commission also heard a presentation on the 2nd Street Retail project. Retail leasing in the area near City Hall is moving slower than expected and full leasing is not expected before next summer. Currently, only one lease is signed on the project, which is intended to blend both upscale and "purely Austin" retail.

Between now and the next meeting of the Downtown Commission, other standing subcommittees will consider updates on their goals. Lorenz has proposed a rewrite of the Downtown Commission's enabling ordinance, bringing it more in line with its current activities and considering the recommendations of the task force charged with reviewing the city's boards and commissions.

And the votes just keep coming . . . If you need any more evidence that this year’s General Election has engaged the rapt attention of area voters, look no further: Early voting in Travis County continues to set records and points to a possible all-time high voter turnout by November 2. Ballots cast during the first three days total 48,711, compared to 14,752 for the period in 2000. That means that so far, 9.25 percent of those registered have voted. Totals are spread fairly evenly around town with the highest three-day totals at Northcross Mall, 4,558. The next largest sites are University of Texas, 3,959; Randall’s on Parmer Lane, 3,236; Randall’s on Research, 3,222; Home Depot on Brodie Lane, 2,844, and Randall’s on Bee Cave, 2,790. County election officials also report 3,561 votes from their mobile voting operation, and 2,487 mail-in ballots .. . Back to the grind . . . The City Council will be back at the LCRA this morning, resuming its meeting schedule with the consideration of funds for a variety of programs to benefit community organizations in the Holly Street neighborhood. Each year, Austin Energy provides about $1 million to those programs . . . Bar-B-Q lovers may be glad to know that the Salt Lick is extending its lease at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for an additional five years. The Council will also be considering a cost reimbursement agreement with WildHorse Ranch development. The agreement will provide a wastewater main and equipment to ensure wastewater services to an additional 100 acres of the development, which is near US 290 East and FM 973 . . . Haegelin Construction Company will be getting an additional $160,877 on its contract for the Eubank Acres Service Area to add French drains and changing the “pavement repair strategy and contingency for latent defects” . . . The Council will also be considering a resolution supporting Capital Metro’s commuter rail proposal . . . Zoning . . . Agent Ron Thrower says he will ask for a postponement of the case involving property at the intersection of Riverside and I-35. The case is likely to bring out a raft of neighborhood folks who think the site should not be zoned for general retail, despite its location at a busy intersection . . . There are a number of public hearings set for 6pm, including one on changes to the city’s development regulations for Rainey Street and an appeal on the Planning Commission’s denial of a conditional use permit for a child care center on West William Cannon.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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