Last week, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court rejected a request by a conservative “dark money” group to keep its donors secret. The lawsuit alleges that the Law Enforcement Alliance of America (LEAA) illegally “coordinated” its ads with Attorney General Greg Abbott’s (R) 2002 campaign. If evidence emerges that the LEAA coordinated with Abbott’s campaign, then the millions of dollars it spent on ads could be considered illegal in-kind campaign contributions. That could spell trouble for Abbott’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, which currently has a huge fundraising advantage over his leading opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis (D).
The LEAA, which has repeatedly refused to reveal its donors, asked the Texas Supreme Court in 2011 to overturn a lower court’s order which required it to produce records and communications about its activities during the 2002 attorney general election. Two former attorney general candidates sued the group for violations of Texas campaign finance laws. The candidates also sued John Colyandro, who recently pled guilty to criminal charges related to the money laundering scandal which brought down former Rep. Tom Delay (R) and several corporate-funded political groups in Texas.
Long before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the LEAA was a pioneer in dark money. The group, which was founded with funding from the National Rifle Association, has spent millions of dollars in recent years to elect judges and attorneys general across America.
The group has run some disturbing “soft on crime” attack ads. In 2008, it accused Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz of “voting for drug dealers and baby killers.” The LEAA spent more on ads in that election “than all the other candidates and independent groups put together.” A state ethics committee ruled the ads were false and violated state ethics laws. After the LEAA ran similar attack ads against a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, it admitted violating Pennsylvania’s campaign finance laws.
A recent study by the Center for American Progress found that these “soft on crime” attack ads have an impact on judges’ rulings in criminal cases. The study examined trends in six states which have seen these type of attack ads, and it concluded: “As campaign cash increased, the courts studied began to rule more often in favor of prosecutors and against criminal defendants.”
The LEAA’s ads also described Abbott’s Democratic opponent as a lawyer who “made millions suing doctors, hospitals, and small businesses.” One might wonder why the LEAA—a group which bills itself as an advocate for police officers and crime victims—would be worried about Texas voters electing candidates who sue businesses. In 2004, one Texas newspaper noted that the LEAA had received $4.5 million from unknown sources and that some local “prosecutors hypothesize that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with ties to the Texas Association of Business, is the alliance’s mystery benefactor.” Justice Diaz has noted similar allegations that the LEAA was a front group for the Chamber in Mississippi.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent millions to elect judges who will rule in favor of corporate defendants and against plaintiffs in tort cases. This effort is bearing fruit, as the courts which have seen the most campaign cash are more likely to rule for corporate defendants.