Pastor’s role in El Paso recall drive could open new door for corporate campaign cash
The Texas Independent first mentioned El Paso pastor Tom Brown in August, when El Paso’s district attorney announced an investigation into Brown’s efforts to recall mayor John Cook and two City Council members.
Brown targeted the three for their deciding votes to extend benefits for domestic partners of city workers, and according to complaints against Brown, Brown’s group circulated recall petitions at churches around El Paso.
The watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State says it filed one complaint against Brown and his group, El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values.
In a sermon, Brown called complaints against his group a “plan of Satan.”
Since then, though, Cook has mounted a legal challenge of his own to block the recall election, though a judge has declined to halt the recall vote. Along the way, though, the El Paso Times has reported the case is raising campaign finance questions that could reach far beyond El Paso in the wake of last year’s landmark Citizens United ruling, much like an Austin case involving the tea party group King Street Patriots.
Cook had asked the recall petitions to be thrown out, alleging that Brown’s group had improperly passed petitions around churches to gather signatures — violating both Texas election law and federal tax code for nonprofits.
Without addressing whether the petitions were legitimate, though, a judge ruled that the recall election should take place. Cook, he said, may challenge the results after they’re in.
As the Times’ Marty Schladen wrote in October:
Cook is challenging a judge’s ruling that is allowing the recall to go forward and argues that if the appellate court does not overrule the lower court, it will help free powerful corporations to harass elected officials they don’t like. Meanwhile, the group behind the recall says an important decision last year by the U.S. Supreme Court already gives corporations that power.
First Amendment and election-law experts say that if the case goes high enough in the courts, it could answer some lingering questions from last year’s controversial decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case.
“This is a very live question,” Richard Briffault, a Columbia University law professor told Schladen. “It could go either way.”
Cook’s attorney suggested in court that there’d be nothing to stop, say, Walmart, from circulating recall petitions at its stores to oust elected officials.
First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told the Times that the El Paso case raises additional questions because, while Citizens United opened the door to corporate support for campaigns, it couldn’t be coordinated with candidates. “In the case of the recall, Cook is accusing churches of helping to organize and carry out the campaign,” Schladen wrote.
There’s extra legal nuance in the fact that the fight is over a recall, and not about campaigning for or against a candidate already in an election.
After Cook’s appeal was denied, the mayor appeared in court, at least in part, to defend his work so far and his vision for the city, and argue that he’ll be irreparably harmed if he’s recalled in May.
In a wild ordeal in court, KVIA News reported that some witnesses subpoenaed in the case declined to answer questions, pleading the 5th Amendment, rather than answer whether they’d signed the petition at a church. Cook testified that his office had already interviewed them and been told that was the case.
Arguments also touched on whether Brown or his group could be held responsible for someone else placing recall petitions in his church, or posting links to the recall effort on his church’s website, KVIA reported:
Brown’s attorney, Joel Oster said it’s not illegal to participate in the democratic process, by signing a petition, at a church. “Christians are not second-class citizens. Christians have every bit of right to participate in the democratic process as anyone else,” he said.