Originally Published in the Houston Chronicle
Tom DeLay and his supporters have blamed his troubles on former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Early, who won DeLay’s indictment but retired during the five years it took to bring the former U.S. House majority leader to trial.
But Early shouldn’t get all the blame, even though he is a Democrat.
A good heaping should go to Houston City Attorney David Feldman.
Why the city attorney?
He got together with his wife, Peggy, and made little Cris Feldman, who grew up to be the crusading young, clean-government lawyer who discovered the illegally hidden records detailing how $190,000 went up to Washington as corporate money and came back to DeLay’s favored candidates for the Texas House of Representatives. During the trip it was cleansed of corporate taint that made it illegal as a campaign contribution.
Those records became the heart of the case that convinced a jury to convict DeLay of felony money laundering last week.
In 2003, the younger Feldman, now with Houston’s Rusty Hardin & Associates, was a 32-year-old lawyer at the Austin firm of Ivy Crews & Elliott.
That firm sued three DeLay associates involved with his Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC), including treasurer Bill Cerverha, in connection with their use of massive amounts of corporate money to defeat five Democratic candidates whom the firm represented.
Fairly early on in the 1,800 hours of work he would do on the case Feldman came across an e-mail from one of the defendants, TRMPAC Executive Director John Colyandro. It instructed TRMPAC’s account to send a blank check to defendant Jim Ellis, director of DeLay’s Washington PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority.
“We didn’t know what the check was for,” Feldman recalled Tuesday. “I started digging into everything I could and found IRS records showing $190,000 was sent to the National Republican Committee.”
Pieces come together
The dates lined up perfectly, and then came the entry showing that two weeks later the National Republican Committee cut consecutively-numbered checks totalling exactly $190,000 to Republican candidates for the Texas House, including the opponents of Feldman’s clients.
Colyandro and Ellis would later be indicted together with DeLay (they are to stand trial separately). They were separated from the lawsuit.
The suit proceeded to trial against Cerverha in front of visiting Judge John Hart, a Democrat retired from the Austin bench whose reputation for fairness was such that Cerverha’s attorneys selected him for the trial.
After listening to the evidence, Judge Hart found that the money was corporate and that running it through the National Republican Committee did not make it clean. He ordered Cerverha to pay $196,000 to Feldman’s clients, but Cerverha declared bankruptcy, paying less than a third of it.
Cerverha’s attorney, Terry Scarborough, a veteran star of a prominent Republican firm, accused Feldman of pressing the case for political reasons, since it was clear Cerverha wouldn’t be able to pay enough to cover Feldman’s firm’s expenses.
All about politics
Scarborough also suggested that Feldman had somehow schemed to get Ellis and Colyandro to be indicted to help his civil case.
Scarborough was half right on both counts.
Feldman admits Tuesday the case was about politics.
“But it wasn’t Republican-Democrat politics,” said Feldman. “It was about the politics of not allowing corporate cash to buy Texas.”
As for Feldman scheming to get the indictments, Greg Cox, head of the Travis County DA’s public integrity unit, said he was careful never to talk to Cerverha about the case. He said he received a series of e-mails and spreadsheets laying out the money laundering from a lawyer he respected who was not involved in the lawsuit.
What Cox didn’t know was that the lawyer got the information from his friend Cris Feldman. The DA’s office would later obtain much of Feldman’s research.
Feldman, the crusader, wasn’t so much using the criminal indictments to help his civil lawsuit as using the civil lawsuit to get the indictments.
Feldman was pleased to see DeLay convicted last week, but he was even prouder of something Ellis told the Texas Observer back in 2003 — that TRMPAC was going to be a model for similar operations around the country, until the lawsuit.