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After more than two years of legal delays, the first civil trial involving Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, the political organization founded by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is scheduled to begin this week in Austin.

The most high-profile witness in the case is expected to be Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick (R), a key DeLay ally in the Lone Star State. Craddick has been subpoenaed and will testify if called, according to news reports in Texas. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond has also been subpoenaed and is prepared to appear as well.

The lawsuit brought by five Texas Democrats who ran for state office in 2002 alleges that TRMPAC, which was founded the year before, violated Texas election law by raising and spending more than $600,000 in corporate funds on electioneering activities during the 2001-02 cycle. The use of corporate funds for such activities is illegal under Texas law. The Democratic candidates are seeking more than $1 million in damages.

The defendant in this week’s trial is Bill Ceverha, TRMPAC’s treasurer. Two other TRMPAC officials, including executive director John Colyandro, were dropped from the civil suit after being indicted last September by an Austin grand jury for unlawfully accepting corporate contributions and money laundering. The second was Jim Ellis, a TRMPAC consultant who also runs DeLay’s federal leadership PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority PAC (ARMPAC). Ellis was charged with money laundering.

Warren Robold, a TRMPAC fundraiser, was indicted for illegally making and accepting corporate donations, but was not named in the civil suit.

TRMPAC was created by DeLay in 2001 with $50,000 in start-up money from ARMPAC. DeLay served on TRMPAC’s advisory board and raised money for the organization, including corporate dollars, although he and his aides have maintained that DeLay had no control over how those funds were actually spent by the organization. DeLay could legally solicit corporate donations for TRMPAC under federal law until such soft-money donations were banned following the 2002 mid-term elections.

“As much as the Democrats and their allies would like to make this trial about Tom DeLay, it’s not about Tom DeLay,” said Dan Allen, his spokesman.

Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice, a government watchdog group, acknowledged that DeLay isn’t on trial, although he pointed out that TRMPAC would not even exist, or prove as successful at fundraising, without the efforts of the powerful Majority Leader. “The public record shows that [DeLay] was pretty involved in passing the money on and raising money,” for TRMPAC, McDonald said.

Republicans gained control of the Texas House in 2002 for the first time since Reconstruction and quickly elected Craddick as Speaker. Under heavy pressure from DeLay, and despite desperate attempts to block it, the Texas Legislature pushed through a Congressional redistricting plan that caused four longtime Democratic incumbents to lose their seats last November.

Craddick has been a target of heavy scrutiny in Texas. He handed out tens of thousands of dollars in donations from TRMPAC to fellow Texas state representatives, which some Democrats and watchdog groups claim was an attempt by Craddick to buy support for his campaign to become the Texas Speaker. Craddick has denied any wrongdoing.

There has also been speculation about a $190,000 money swap between TRMPAC and the Republican National Committee in September and October 2002.

TRMPAC sent $190,000 to the RNC in September, and the RNC then gave $190,000 in donations to seven Texas House candidates the following month — by far the largest such donations made by the RNC to state candidates that cycle. While such swaps were common in the days of soft money, Democrats and watchdog groups have alleged that TRMPAC was attempting to evade Texas’ corporate-funding ban by essentially laundering the money through the RNC. Officials for TRMPAC and the RNC say the swap was entirely legal.

What is unclear right now is what, if any, impact these legal proceedings will have on DeLay’s future. His support among Congressional Republicans remains strong, but his reputation, and thus his political standing, was damaged last year when the House ethics committee formally admonished him three times in two different cases.

DeLay had further problems when the House Republican Conference, following the November elections, changed an internal rule that required members of the GOP leadership to step down from their posts if indicted on criminal charges. Following complaints from several Republican lawmakers, as well as heavy criticism from House Democrats and the media, the GOP Conference revised the rule back to its original form. DeLay himself asked for the reversal.

The House ethics committee said it would hold off investigating the TRMPAC allegations until a criminal probe of the 2002 state elections in Texas ends. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has been conducting that investigation since 2003. The ethics committee was first drawn into the matter after an ethics complaint was filed against DeLay by then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas).

DeLay himself has never been subpoenaed, much less indicted, during Earle’s probe. DeLay has, however, converted an existing legal defense fund to help cover the costs of the investigation, and he has hired several criminal defense lawyers in Austin to represent him, although it’s unclear right now whether Earle will ever go directly after the powerful Texas Republican.

Preliminary arguments in the criminal case could begin as early as next month, according to TPJ’s McDonald.

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