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Mon, May 26, 2003

Feds May Investigate Killer D Episode

Did Republicans Abuse Power By Calling in FAA, HSD?

The Texas Department of Public Safety has destroyed all the records, but the feds have copies. And they have tapes. Lots of tapes. Together, the records and tapes could become the basis of a federal investigation into whether the speaker of the Texas House and the Majority Leader of the US House of Representatives illegally pulled strings in Washington to track down a single Piper Cheyenne for political - not national security - purposes.

The controversy, which began earlier this month (ANN: May 19,2003 -  Texas GOP Calls HSD To Find 'Missing' Democrat's Plane), began when Congressman Tom DeLay (R-TX, right), the House Majority Leader, sent a congressional redistricting map to Austin. Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a Republican, dutifully set aside other matters on the state house agenda and made DeLay's plan a priority. Democrats, although few in number, were incensed. Knowing they didn't have the votes to prevent the second redistricting plan in as many legislative sessions, they bolted.

State Representative Pete Laney (D-Hale Center, TX) was one of the 53 Democrats to bolt from Austin. While most left in two buses headed for Ardmore (OK), Laney flew some state representatives and staff members from Georgetown (TX), near the state capitol, to Ardmore (OK), where they hid out in a Holiday Inn Hotel. In doing so, they prevented the House from reaching a quorum and, in effect, scuttled DeLay's redistricting plan. But it's what Texas House Speaker Craddick did to track down Laney that has him - and DeLay - engine-out on short final.

The Search For Killer D's: Abuse Of Power?

When the rebel Democrats - dubbed the Killer D's by the Austin media - didn't show up for work May 12th, Craddick locked those who did in the House chambers and began a desperate manhunt for the renegades. The DPS set up a command post next to Craddick's statehouse office. Not long after that, they got a tip that Laney's Cheyenne was being used to ferry Killer D's out of Austin. But they didn't know where the flights were headed. As soon as they found out, Craddick hoped to send Texas Rangers and DPS troopers to scoop them up and bring them back to the state capitol by force.

Craddick (center, right) sent highway patrol cars screaming over to the airport in Georgetown - where they found nothing. That's when he apparently called DeLay in Washington and DeLay went to work as well.

Last week, for the first time, DeLay admitted he called both the Department of Justice and the FAA, hoping to track down Laney's aircraft. But DeLay, one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, insists his office did nothing wrong in trying to help Craddick achieve a quorum.

"I think Craddick was telling me he had spoken to the US Attorney and that the US Attorney was going to check" on whether Justice resources, including the FBI and the US Marshals, could be brought to bear in the Killer D hunt, said DeLay. "Could I check with the Department of Justice so he (Craddick) would know what to say to the US attorney when he called him back? I checked. There's nothing they can do. What role could the FBI, what role could the US Marshals play, role role could Justice play? I was quickly informed there was no role."

But DeLay wasn't finished yet. "I asked a staffer to contact the FAA for publicly available information that any member of Congress gets from the FAA, or you can get it off the internet," he told reporters from Texas on Capitol Hill Thursday. Specifically, DeLay said he instructed the staffer to locate "a certain plane with a certain tail number." In other words, where was Laney's Cheyenne in real-time? The answer: Not in the air. DeLay passed the information on to one of Craddick's aides back in Austin.

Destruction of Documents

DeLay said the information was relayed back to Craddick's office in Washington. But that apparently didn't stop Craddick from attempting to use federal resources to track down Laney and the Killer D's. Apparently, at his instruction, the DPS had, in the meantime, instructed one unnamed trooper to contact the Air and Marine Interdiction Center in Riverside (CA), a division of the new Homeland Security Department, initiating a nationwide hunt for Laney's Piper. "From all indications, this request . . . was an urgent plea for assistance from a law enforcement agency trying to locate a missing, lost or possibly crashed aircraft," said the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the Interdiction Center, in a written statement to the Austin Statesman-American.

Homeland Security spread the net, calling FAA offices around the region and perhaps doing more. But they came up empty handed. An Interdiction Center staff member called the Texas trooper back and suggested that he initiate lost-aircraft procedures by contacting the FAA. There is no indication at this point the trooper made such a call. Three days after the Killer D's skipped the state, as Democrats across the country demand an investigation into what they say was a blatant abuse of federal authority by Texas Republicans, the DPS began destroying evidence gathered in its hunt for the renegade Democrats.

An internal Department of Public Safety E-mail distributed to top DPS investigators told them: "Any notes, correspondence, photos, etc. that were obtained pursuant to the absconded House of Representative members shall be destroyed immediately. No copies are to be kept. Any questions please contact me." L.C. "Tony" Marshall, commander of the DPS Special Crimes Service, signed the order.

Let The Investigations Begin

That set off an ongoing grand jury probe by the Travis County (TX) district attorney's office into whether the destruction of evidence was legal - especially given its controversial nature. District Attorney Ronnie Earle says his office is "examining the circumstances surrounding the destruction of (DPS) records. The questions (being asked) include what records were destroyed, under what authority and why the records were destroyed so quickly."

The DPS issued a statement Wednesday saying the records were ordered destroyed because federal regulations prohibit troopers from keeping intelligence information that is not part of a criminal case. "This was not a criminal matter, so we could not legally maintain that information," the DPS statement said, adding that retaining the information could have subjected the agency to a $10,000 fine.

Is that really the case? The firestorm over whether Craddick and the DPS misused federal resources in the hunt for Laney's Cheyenne is now red-hot in both Austin and Washington. State Rep. Kevin Bailey (D-Houston, right) said the law cited in the DPS statement was blatently misapplied. "This investigation to find us ... should not have fallen under that criteria. So it raises questions again as to why that evidence was destroyed when there is no state law that I'm aware of that mandates the destruction of that information and keeps us wondering, keeps people wondering: Is there something to hide?" he said.

To that, DPS Administrator Caskey replied, "In compliance with the rules and regulations we do this every day."

Another Texas Democrat, Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam, head of the House Democratic Caucus and one of the leaders who organized the walkout, said, "We need to find out what happened and why. It may well be that they have a simple explanation, but to this point, what they have apparently done, and not answering questions about it, makes the whole thing very disturbing."

"Misuse of federal law enforcement agencies for domestic political purposes. Sounds like Watergate in 1974 and Richard Nixon, doesn't it?," said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Waco).

A Texas court has now ordered the DPS to preserve all records pertaining to the involvement of state and federal resources in the hunt of the Killer D's. All records left after the destruction order was given to troopers, that is.

Ridge: Criminal Investigation Could Be On The Way

In Washington, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has now ordered the FAA to investigate whether its resources were misapplied in the hunt for the renegade Texas Democrats. It's the second federal investigation ordered by a top Bush Administration official. HSD Secretary Tom Ridge (right) refused reporters' requests Thursday for transcripts and audio tapes of operations initiated after the Texas DPS asked for help in locating Laney's aircraft.

"This is now potentially a criminal investigation," Ridge said.

DeLay and Craddick continue to insist there was no misuse of federal resources and no wrongdoing in the hunt for the Killer D's. “In their desperation, liberal Democrats invented and peddled a story that I debunked,” DeLay said in a statement Friday.

Caskey chose to not to talk with reporters as he left the Travis County Grand Jury Thursday afternoon. "It is illegal for me to talk to you." When asked if that was on advice of his attorney, he replied: "No, orders from the grand jury. I can't tell you anything."

Craddick, serving his first term as Texas House Speaker, said Friday that, even though the DPS command post was set up next to his statehouse office - even though he admits to coordinating the search for Killer D's with DPS troopers, "I don't know what their procedures are or what, you know, what their rules are over there. I think it's not appropriate for me to comment on what the DPS did or didn't do. There is no conspiracy here."

Calling the DPS "a highly respected police agency," Craddick said, "I'm afraid that those who are pursuing a conspiracy are drilling a dry well."

FMI: www.dhs.gov/dhspublic, Texas Democrats, www.faa.gov, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick

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