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Texas: court rules that TRMPAC failed to report corporate contributions and must pay damages to defeated Dem candidates

AP reports: The treasurer of a political committee formed by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay violated Texas election code by not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, a judge ruled Thursday in a civil case brought by Democratic candidates.

State District Judge Joe Hart, in a letter outlining his ruling to attorneys in the case, said the money, much of it corporate contributions, should have been reported to the Texas Ethics Commission.

The ruling means Bill Ceverha, treasurer of the group, called the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee, will have to pay nearly $200,000. It will be divided among those who brought the suit against Ceverha, five Democratic candidates who lost legislative races in 2002.

The Democrats who sued TRMPAC claimed Ceverha violated the state election law, designed to keep elections free from "the taint of corporate cash." -- DeLay PAC Treasurer Violated Texas Ethics Law, Judge Rules

Updates: The Campaign Legal Center has the judge's letter here.

NPR's All Things Considered had a segment on this story last evening. It ends with Wade Goodwyn saying that it is likely that Tom DeLay will be indicted.

The Houston Chronicle reports: Hart said TRMPAC defined administrative expenses overly broadly in using corporate money. He said all of TRMPAC's expenditures fit the Texas legal definition of political spending.

Hart, a Democrat, is a visiting judge chosen to try the case by the Republican lawyers for TRMPAC and lawyers for the plaintiffs because of a history of judicial fairness. Hart awarded the five Democratic plaintiffs $196,000 plus attorneys fees.

Terry Scarborough, the attorney representing Ceverha, said he will ask Hart to allow him to appeal the case immediately. Ceverha's case is linked to other defendants in such a way that an appeal could be delayed for more than a year if Hart did not sever the case.

"We feel strongly this decision is wrong," Scarborough said. "Our client was exercising his constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association. These are the most fundamental constitutional rights that we, as citizens, enjoy and cherish."

Cris Feldman, one of the lawyers for the Democratic plaintiffs, said more information likely will come out about illegal campaign activities as lawsuits proceed against other TRMPAC defendants and the Texas Association of Business. -- DeLay PAC's treasurer broke law, judge rules

Update to the Update: Peter Overby of NPR corrects my impression of what Wade Goodwyn said: "He said he "would not be surprised" if DeLay was added to legal actions by the Dems "& perhaps even" Earle." Thanks, Peter.