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Members Aid Ellis’ Defense

Several House Republicans are helping to pay the legal bills of a top political adviser to Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) who is under indictment in Texas on money-laundering charges.

Between November and December 2004, Lone Star State Reps. Michael Burgess and Michael Conaway each donated $5,000 from their campaign accounts to the Texas Justice Legal Defense Fund, a private non-charitable trust that was established late last year to aid embattled DeLay operative Jim Ellis.

Ellis, a former adviser to Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee DeLay founded in 2001, was indicted by an Austin grand jury in September 2004 for allegedly helping funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate funds through the PAC to benefit several GOP candidates running for the Texas state Legislature. It is illegal in Texas to use corporate funds for state candidates’ campaigns.

TRMPAC was instrumental in the GOP’s successful effort in 2002 to take back control of the Texas state House for the first time since Reconstruction — a move that opened the door to Republican redistricting efforts in the state and helped the GOP net five U.S. House seats in Texas.

While Ellis has maintained his innocence, GOP lawmakers have been generous in offering financial support to the GOP operative — who still runs DeLay’s political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority. Ellis earned $6,400 for his services in January alone, according to ARMPAC’s filings with the FEC.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) donated $1,000 to the fund in December, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) made a $10,000 contribution to the fund in January through his leadership PAC, the Rely On Your Beliefs Fund. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) also made a $1,000 donation from his leadership PAC at the end of January. Regula had been a candidate to become the next chairman of the Appropriations Committee but was beaten out in early January.

Blunt, Regula, Feeney and Burgess are among the dozens of House Members who’ve helped financially boost DeLay’s own legal defense fund, which according to Public Citizen has raised more than $990,000 since it was founded in 2000.

On July 14, 2004, Blunt gave two separate $5,000 donations to the Tom DeLay Legal Expense Trust — one from his re-election account and the other from his leadership PAC. Two days earlier, Burgess contributed $5,000 from his campaign account to DeLay’s legal expense fund. Feeney’s campaign gave $5,000 to the DeLay fund in late November, and CARE, Regula’s leadership PAC, kicked in $5,000 in late October of 2004.

According to Public Citizen, former Members of Congress and their PACs have contributed 35 percent of the entire amount that DeLay’s legal expense trust has collected since its inception, and Blunt is one of the most generous donors, giving $20,000 in the past four years.

The $22,000 worth of donations for Ellis’ benefit were disclosed in the Members’ campaign finance reports filed with the FEC, although it is still unclear how much the Texas Justice Legal Defense Fund has actually raised. Private trusts are not required to publicly disclose their contributors or expenses.

The donations from the campaigns were sent to San Antonio law firm Nicholas and Barrerra, which is handling the administration of the defense fund. According to press accounts, Roy R. Barrerra Jr. circulated a letter in elite Washington circles last year to summon donations to the fund, for which he serves as trustee.

Ellis did not respond to a message left on his home phone. His lawyer, J.D. Pauerstein, also did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Following their indictments last fall, the names of both Ellis and John Colyandro, TRMPAC’s former executive director, were dropped from a related civil suit brought by several Texas Democrats who ran for office in 2002. Those candidates believe that TRMPAC’s spending doomed their races and are seeking more than $1 million in damages.

That case was heard last week in an Austin courthouse, and a ruling is expected in the next several weeks. Preliminary arguments in the criminal case, meanwhile, could begin as early as next month.

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