Film about Travis County DA's investigation of Texas election of 2002

Friday, October 7, 2005

Two independent filmmakers, Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck, have created a film covering the 2002 Texas election campaign and the involvement of corporate donations. Their film is called The Big Buy and includes approximately 50 hours of interviews with the Travis County Prosecutor's office, including prosecutor Ronnie Earle, lawyers for those under investigation, and some journalists.

Schermbeck and Birnbaum started The Big Buy in February 2003 and billed it as a "Texas noir political detective story that chronicles what some are calling a “bloodless coup with corporate cash.” It follows maverick Austin DA Ronnie Earle’s investigation into what really happened when corporate money joined forces with relentless political ambitions to help swing the pivotal 2002 Texas elections, cementing Republican control from Austin to Washington D.C."

The film has suddenly gained notoriety because of the recent indictments of Tom Delay by Travis County District Attorney's office. "We couldn't have given this film away last month," Mr. Schermbeck said. "We couldn't get any attention for it, or any money for it. Now, we're getting the attention, but so far it's still self-financed."

The Big Buy draws its title from the idea that political influence can be bought and paid for, Schermbeck said.

The filmmakers financed the project themselves and made no payments to any of those interviewed, they said. "We look at this as witnessing history as it happens," Schermbeck said. "What if there was a film about Sharpstown [ the political scandal in the early '70s that derailed the careers of several Texas politicians]? It would have been great to have that as a historical document. This time we will."

The National Review Online, which obtained an unfinished copy of the film last week, has written that it contains footage inside the grand jury room as well as inside the prosecutors office.

Presumably that is the same version of the film that was shown to a crowd of about 300 at the Dallas Video Festival in early August. Birnbaum and Schermbeck plan to re-work the ending. Now that Mr. Earle's investigation has focused on Delay, the filmmakers feel it only makes sense.

There have been conflicting reports on whether Mr. DeLay's staff said he chose not to grant any interviews to the filmmakers two years ago, or if his office was contacted at all. Mr. Schermbeck said he hopes the congressman will get involved. "We obviously have to do a new ending to this now, and we're going to be calling DeLay's lawyers and staff," Mr. Schermbeck said.

DeLay defenders have used the film to attack the indictments handed out, as well as Ronnie Earle. "This is just further proof that this vendetta against congressman DeLay has been scripted from Day 1," said Ben Porritt, a spokesman for Tom Delay who was forced to give up his post as House majority leader after the indictment was handed down.

Schermbeck in responding to the various charges said, "We couldn't get past [Delay's] the front door. So we regrouped and decided to approach Mr. Earle about telling the story from his point of view." Bernbeck went on, "I don't think Mr. DeLay's name ever came up. We were as surprised as anyone that he was indicted."

Newspapers and Delay defenders have also charged that the filmmakers were given special access to Ronnie Earle and his staff as they examined allegations that Republicans were illegally funneling corporate contributions to the campaigns of Texas state legislative candidates.

“Oh yeah, he’s just doing his job. He’s just doing his job. He’s got a film crew that has been following him around for two years to document how he’s going to get Tom DeLay,” DeLay said on a Houston talk radio show Friday.

Ronnie Earle responded to the charges, "My office follows all the same proper rules about rightfully protected information for all the media no matter who they are. When somebody said to Harry Truman, 'Give 'em hell, Harry, I just tell them the truth, and they think it's hell.' I told them the truth, and they thought it was a movie. Go figure. I'm just doing my job."

Birnbaum and Schermbeck supported Earle's version of events, saying that Earle and his staff gave them some interviews. They also did not get access to any of the secret grand jury proceedings or witness any of the staff’s deliberations in the DeLay investigation.

Both Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck have collaborated on a number of projects in the past. Birnbaum has been working in film since 1969. According to his website he has done everything from production to editing film for PBS and the Discovery Channel all over the world. He also lists various awards he has won, including a Peabody Award. Schermbeck has been a community organizer in Texas for almost 30 years. He has worked with Public Citizen, The National Toxics Campaign, and Downwinders at Risk.