Bud Kennedy

April 1, 2014

Utah’s campaign cash scandal reads like a TV script. So how about Texas?

Stealth campaign funding draws an investigation in Utah and attention in Austin.

The story reads like an HBO script for a frightening new political drama.

Secret “dark money” campaign cash elects a lobbyist crony to state office, and more hidden donations eliminate a lawmaker calling for reform.

It’s scary — and true, according to a new Utah report on the scandal around former Attorney General John Swallow and payday lenders, spurring new worries about phantom campaign funding.

No reason to ask whether it could happen in Texas.

Of course it can, and may already have.

“Texas has groups spending millions of dollars without the public knowing where it came from or who’s behind it,” said Austin lawyer Steve Bresnen, pressing the Texas Ethics Commission to adopt stricter rules requiring more campaign finance reporting.

He estimates that $2 million was spent the last two election cycles by groups that don’t disclose their donors, much of it by anti-establishment conservatives but also by business and labor groups.

The 214-page Utah House investigative committee report may spark new interest in the Texas Ethics Commission’s investigation and court cases involving Midland-funded Empower Texans, also known as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.

The commission had scheduled a hearing for Thursday, but Empower Texans has challenged the process in federal court. The group argues that state ethics laws tread on constitutional free speech.

Bresnen gathered much of the evidence in the original 2012 complaints, one of them filed by former state Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, who accused Empower Texans of not fully reporting its activities and finances.

To Bresnen, a lobbyist and former counsel to Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the problem is “secret influence with big money.”

The Utah House found both.

“The Committee concludes that Mr. Swallow hung a veritable ‘for sale’ sign on the office door that invited moneyed interests to seek special treatment and favors,” the House committee wrote in its report.

Swallow and a Utah payday-lending executive agreed to solicit “hidden” contributions from the industry, the House committee wrote, that funded “nearly untraceable negative attacks” on his Republican primary opponents.

Donations also went to defeat a four-term Republican who had filed a payday reform bill.

The report also says evidence was hidden or destroyed and documents falsified.

Swallow is not accused of any crime. Prosecutors say they are reviewing the report.

In one highlight, Swallow talked money with an indicted businessman at a Krispy Kreme.

Look, if it has happened in Texas, how would we know?

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