Editor’s Note: This is the 18th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”
As the research director for Texans for Public Justice — a liberal think tank in Austin — Andrew Wheat spends a lot of time crunching numbers.
He’s not an accountant, although surely Republican U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay wishes Wheat was somewhere at a downtown accounting firm anxiously awaiting the return of tax season. Wheat spends his time poring over countless campaign finance reports, making sure politicians aren’t breaking the law and taking advantage of the taxpayers’ trust and money.
Over the years, Wheat has turned his research into award-winning, eye-opening columns for The Texas Observer. Most notably, his group was responsible for uncovering information suggesting that DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (TRMPAC) was funneling corporate campaign contributions into the coffers of Republican candidates, an action that may be prohibited by Texas law.
This information helped lead to DeLay’s indictment on conspiracy and money-laundering charges in September. Wheat’s knowledge of the state campaign finance system and his experience digging out potentially fraudulent activity, coupled with The Observer’s editorial freedom, is providing Texans with the opportunity to find out exactly what their elected officials are up to.
Three of his columns earned him a 2005 AltWeekly Award in the political column category. The reports analyzed the vested interests that "bankrolled" the Texas Supreme Court, identified the lobbyists and lobby firms that represented the 15 corporations that contributed most of TRMPAC’s total corporate funding, and profiled a man Wheat identified as Texas’s "first postmodern lobbyist," defined as someone who amasses so much clout he is virtually indivisible from the government he’s influencing.
How did you turn a job at a liberal think tank into a column at an alternative newsweekly?
I had been working at Texans for Public Justice since 1997. It was set up to follow money in Texas politics, which we call the Wild West of money and politics. In Texas, there are no limits on how much you contribute to a PAC or a candidate running for state office, except in judicial races, which have highly indulgent limits. So we put together this little nonprofit to monitor these torrential flows of money. I had somewhat of a background in journalism and started writing the occasional column for The Observer. It seemed to work out and it became a fairly regular, irregular gig.
What makes a great topic for your column?
I guess the most common recurring theme we deal with is the selling of the public interest downriver by public officials. The officials we deal with here in Texas, as well as officials elsewhere, seem to have two constituencies — the voter/general public and their donor constituencies. Unfortunately, we’ve found that the officials’ relationship with the donors is stronger and more intimate than their relationship with the general public.
Time and time again we see this in the Texas legislature and in the courts, where our judges run for state office and take contributions from lawyers and litigants who have cases before these judges in state court. It’s a sham. It’s a sham that has most recently been publicized by Tom DeLay, who has been judge shopping here, and everyone has been shocked, shocked, shocked that our judges come with a partisan label.
Tom Delay and his Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee seemed to be a topic ripe for investigation. What was the genesis of your information-gathering?
The criminal indictments of TRMPAC and some of Tom Delay’s cronies here in Travis County following the 2002 state House elections, in which TRMPAC and another group, the Texas Association of Business, raised and spent large amounts of money to help the Republicans take over the Texas House. That led to the redistricting of Texas’s congressional districts, resulting in six new seats for Republicans in Congress.
Almost immediately after the November 2002 election, the Texas Association of Business started swaggering around, bragging that it had "blown the doors off" the 2002 elections through its independent expenditures of public monies. We’re talking about expenditures in the neighborhood of $3 million benefiting a list of about two dozen candidates, most of whom won public office. They said since they spent this money on independent issue ads, basically attack ads, they didn’t have to report this $3 million in corporate contributions.
The prosecutor down here, Ronnie Earle, started investigating the Texas Association of Business. We decided to look at money contributed to these key races. We found it wasn’t just that group, but also Delay’s TRMPAC that was backing some of the same candidates. The ah-ha moment came when we found the Delay’s group was keeping two sets of books.
Texas law has long prohibited contributions by corporations, so what DeLay’s group did was report one set of books to the Texas Ethics Commission and report one set to the IRS. When you crunched the numbers in both sets of books, there was a difference of about $600,000 that turned out to be the corporate contributions. In March 2003, we made a formal written complaint based on our findings to Ronnie Earle’s office, but we never expected it would go this far.
Since it has gone this far, with indictments of Tom DeLay, do you have a renewed faith in the legal/political system?
Well, I think it’s a little too early for that. We’ll see. It’s been a wacky, wild ride here the past few weeks with DeLay taking his judge-shopping trip all the way up to the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, who had the same campaign treasurer in 2002 as Delay’s TRMPAC and who was seemingly more conflicted than most of the judges that DeLay has objected to. But the chief justice very quickly knocked the case to a retired judge in San Antonio who has made modest contributions to state Democratic House candidates. So, we’ll just have to wait and see how this circus ends.
People think of columns a lot of time as strictly opinion pieces, how much time goes into a reported column like yours?
There are a significant number of hours that go into each piece. Because of the sophisticated databases we have, it’s a little easier for me to do than for someone who didn’t have the information. But that said, it still takes many hours.
It reminds me of the time I worked for Ralph Nader’s magazine Multinational Monitor. One of the first pieces I did was on sweatshop garment workers. I was well into the piece when I realized these poor Asian immigrants, who were being paid pennies for each little piece they did, were in a situation somewhat analogous to how I was being paid per word by the Multinational Monitor.
So when you look at in those terms it’s a vast loss, but, luckily, I’m not doing it for monetary reasons. I do it primarily because I really appreciate The Observer, and I think they do great stuff. There’s a natural fit between what we do and what they do. I also respect the fact that they are not just stenographers for the rich and powerful. It’s an amazing little liberal organ in a pretty backward state.
Does all of your research work for Texans for Public Justice make good column material? How do you know when you’ve got a hold of something good?
It’s not that complicated usually. The ah-ha moment comes when you’ve found something that in many cases a politician has gone to great lengths to bury and hide. Like in the TRMPAC case, it appeared that they went to enormous lengths to hide what appeared to us to be a crime committed with malice and foresight.
Your bio says, "Wheat’s columns in The Texas Observer are so influential that Texas politicos go out of their way to oppose any opinion voiced therein." Is that the sincerest form of flattery?
I think it is, to be utterly not just ignored but to be openly contradicted all the time. We’re living in whacked-out times where it’s frustrating and amusing at the same time. What can you do but laugh?
Charlie Deitch is a freelance writer and a part-time staff writer for Pittsburgh City Paper. He lives near Pittsburgh, Pa.