Ties That Bind?

The D.A. shares something with those he's supposed to be probing: campaign support

Advocacy groups have argued for years that as long their ads don't contain "magic words" -- a direct plea to vote for or against something -- they are educational, not political. In that case, the argument goes, the identities of those who fund the ads can be kept secret.

But that theory was shattered when the court upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms last month, says Lewis, the attorney who heads Campaigns for People. "The law has been clarified to make it very clear that hiding behind 'magic words' won't cut it anymore."

Karen Lundquist, executive director of the Texas Ethics Commission, agrees. She declined comment on the complaint against TTM. However, if a group spends money "in connection with an election," she says, it typically has to file finance reports. "They may claim it's not about the election, but to let people know about the issues. With the Supreme Court case, some of those arguments have lost their punch."

Rosenthal chose not to investigate before the election.
Deron Neblett
Rosenthal chose not to investigate before the election.

To Lewis, it only makes sense. "Why would anybody run TV ads four weeks before an election, mention the issues and target voters if they're not interested in influencing elections?" he says. "It's electioneering, and everybody knows it."

In late October, the antirail group reported the sources for a fraction of its purse: the $175,000 earmarked for its "political action committee." Such committees, unlike educational forums, must reveal contributions.

The PAC money came from just two donors. One is suburban developer Stevens, who contributed $155,000. (He also has donated $15,200 to Rosenthal campaigns.) The other is restaurateur Edd Hendee, who contributed $20,000. (He's given $1,250 to Rosenthal.)

Even as they criticize rail supporters for their financial interests in the expansion, antirail advocates argue that they need anonymity to protect them from prorail leaders and government officials.

Hendee admits he hasn't taken any heat. "But I don't do business with the city," he says. "I don't run permits through City Hall, I don't do business with the Greater Houston Partnership. I can certainly understand someone else's reluctance."

But he seems none too worried about his fellow rail opponents being outed. He scoffs at the ethics commission complaint as mere "political posturing from those who oppose our positions."

He also offers an explanation for why Rosenthal's investigation hasn't wrapped up yet: There's never been an investigation.

As the committee's treasurer, he's custodian of the financial records at the core of the dispute. But he says no one from Rosenthal's office has even contacted him -- hardly the mark of a sizzling investigation. (Rosenthal says he doesn't know the details of the investigation, but he doesn't dispute Hendee. The D.A. explains that the probe may center on legal questions -- "I suspect it's a matter of law," he says -- and not what's in the group's records.)

Don Smith, the D.A.'s governmental affairs bureau chief, says, "There is an investigation going on, and we're going to try to resolve it." Smith concedes that the Supreme Court ruling may have complicated things, but says the investigation is on track.

"There are other people involved other than Edd Hendee," Smith says. "Before anything is resolved, I'm sure we'll talk to him or his legal representative."

Even if Rosenthal is taking the complaint seriously, it may be academic at this point. As Wulfe notes, regardless of what the D.A. does now, it's too late to matter at the polls. "I think the public is entitled to know, up front, who's supporting what," he says.

In the battle over rail, that moment has passed.

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