News article, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 26, 2002

Lobbyists seek to end PAC-to-PAC donations

BYLINE: Laylan Copelin, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

SECTION: News; Pg. A1

LENGTH: 882 words

People who give millions of dollars to Texas candidates now say the Legislature should make it easier for the public to follow the money -- their's and their political opponents.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which lobbies for litigation limits, and its members often are criticized for how they attempt to influence state officials through their donations. Now they are counterattacking with a 24-page report accusing plaintiffs' lawyers of disguising their money through a shell-game of political action committees and the Democratic Party before it reaches candidates. The group mailed 6,000 copies Wednesday night to decision-makers and the news media.

The issue of campaign-finance reform is typically the purview of government watchdog groups, not the donors whose money is grist for the watchdogs' reports about the influence of money in politics.

While admitting the lawyers act legally, the report complains that "millions of dollars have been showered onto Texas' political landscape cleverly disguised" because of loopholes in the state's disclosure laws.

Democratic groups and trial lawyers say they are not doing anything the other side doesn't do.

"It's politically motivated," said George Shipley, who represents several legal firms. "It's a nickel-and-dime smear."

The mailing calls on the Legislature to ban PACs from donating to other PACs because it makes it harder for the public to know the original source of a candidate's money.

The group calls for immediate reporting of large donations by PACs in the final days of a campaign. It wants law firms, like corporations, to be barred from donating directly to candidates. It also says candidates and PACs should list the occupations of donors.

Finally, the report argues that the names of PACs should accurately reflect a group's purpose.

But both sides say a name can be in the eye of the beholder. The Bass family of Fort Worth business billionaires is as unlikely to give up the Good Government Fund as the trial lawyers would have surrendered the name Texas 2000 for that election year.

Fred Lewis with Campaigns for People, a group that promotes campaign-finance disclosure, welcomed the other suggestions, though he said they don't go far enough. For example, he said voters need to know a donor's employer, as well as his or her occupation, so they will know the donor's economic interest. Depending on the law firm, a lawyer -- for example -- either could defend polluters or sue them.

"The issue of disclosing all campaign contributions before an election is not a liberal or conservative issue," Lewis said. "I think everybody ought to be seeing what everybody is doing."

The Legislature, however, killed legislation last year that would have required that more information be provided to the public.

Until now, Texans for Lawsuit Reform and its members have been under the microscope. Texans for Public Justice, a group that since 1997 has touted itself as "taking on political corruption and corporate abuses," said TLR in 2000 got almost 80 percent of its money from 24 "tycoons" with an interest in limiting jury awards. The report said 92 percent of the money ended up in Republican hands.

Now TLR is responding with it's own tough talk in the mailing: "How Texas Trial Lawyers Are Attempting to Dump Millions of Dollars into Texas Political Campaigns . . . Without Leaving any Fingerprints."

The report says trial lawyers gave $7.3 million to state candidates from Jan. 1, 2000, through June of this year. Five lawyers who sued the tobacco industry for the state gave $3.2 million. The remainder came from the state's 10 largest plaintiffs' law firms and the group's political action committees. The Democratic Party ended up with $3.3 million of the donations.

In elections across the state, Republicans frequently try to criticize Democratic candidates for taking money from plaintiffs' lawyers. But the report says trial lawyers move the money through more than one PAC or the Democratic Party to disguise their involvement.

Craig McDonald, who tracks campaign money for Texans for Public Justice, says two of the four PACs -- Texas 2000 and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association -- function just as the political committee for the lawsuit reform group.

"Like-minded individuals appoint a treasurer, sit in a circle and throw some money in the hat," he said.

For his money, McDonald said limiting campaign donations -- as is done in federal elections -- is the only way to reduce the few king-makers in Texas politics -- whether it's billionaire business owners or wealthy trial lawyers.

The report also cites two other PACs that are managed by former Sen. Carl Parker, a Port Arthur lawyer and Austin lobbyist. The report shows money from trial lawyers flowing through the Carl A. Parker PAC and the Constitutional Defense Fund on its way to other PACs or Democratic candidates and the party.

Parker denied trying to hide the source of the money from the public. He said he wouldn't object to banning PAC-to-PAC donations and welcomed TLR's plans to form a watchdog to monitor trial lawyers' contributions. "We may counter with the Greedy Special Interests Against Consumers Rights Watch," Parker said.