July 05, 2006
Tax attorneys love Strayhorn, builders love Greg Abbott

Two items on why ethics in government is a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have: One, why tax lawyers love Carole Keeton Strayhorn:

In her quest to become the next governor, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has continued to accept, despite criticism, hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from attorneys whose firms appear to have a stake in tax rulings made by her staff.

Campaign records indicate that over the past 18 months, the comptroller, the self-described "tough grandma" who is running for governor as an independent, has received roughly $788,000 from individuals working for firms that practice tax law.

All of which raises a thorny question: Should an elected officeholder who leads an agency charged with settling tax matters take money from people whose livelihoods may depend on agency rulings?

Good-government watchdog groups say no, and so did a state audit last year, which concluded that Strayhorn had accepted nearly $2 million in contributions over 51/2 years from donors who - within a year of their donations - benefited from tax reductions totaling $461 million.

The audit said it uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing on Strayhorn's part, but it urged legislators to prohibit the comptroller or candidates for that job from taking contributions from individuals with business before the office.

Meanwhile, as Rick Casey notes, homebuilder and Swift Boat financier Bob Perry has similar love for Attorney General Greg Abbott.

ONE thing you have to like about Texas politicians is their resistance to embarrassment.

Take the case of Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Last Dec. 15 he received $100,000 in campaign contributions from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry and his wife.

The next day, he received a letter from Rep. David Swinford of Dumas, chairman of the House Committee on State Affairs.

Swinford wanted Abbott to issue a formal opinion on whether Grandma, a.k.a. state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, had the authority to conduct a review of the performance of the newly created and controversial Texas Residential Construction Commission.


In addition, five days after sending his request to Abbott, Swinford received his first contribution from Perry, for $2,000. Six weeks later he would receive another $10,000.

Swinford said Perry had nothing to do with his request.

"I thought (Strayhorn) was overstepping her authority," he said.

He said Perry's contributions came because Swinford chaired an important committee and faced his first strong election challenge in ages.

"I was needing help in a tough race, and he was kind enough to give it," Swinford said.

The script went as expected. After considerable staff research, Strayhorn issued a scathing report in January on the commission and called for its abolishment.

Calling it a "builder protection agency," she said, "If it were up to me personally, I would blast this Texas Residential Construction Commission off the bureaucratic books."

In May, the attorney general ruled that she didn't have the authority to assess the commission.

As reformers are fond of saying, oftentimes the scandals aren't what's illegal but what is allowed. I've no doubt that what Strayhorn and Abbott did was within the law as it exists in Texas. I also have very little doubt that it would be practical or even possible to write an effective law that would bar this sort of behavior.

But just because something is legal doesn't mean it's acceptable, or that it should be. Strayhorn and Abbott took actions that benefitted a particular interest group, and reaped campaign contributions from those interest groups. You don't have to believe there was a quid pro quo arrangement to think that there's something wrong about that. Many people do look at that sort of thing, conclude that "everyone does it", become frustrated and cynical, and take no further action. I say if you don't like this, you have an obligation to express your dissatisfaction at the ballot box. If it turns out the person you vote in to replace the one whom you fired before for this sort of thing, vote that person out as well. It doesn't have to be a partisan thing. All it takes is to expect better of the people who are entrusted with positions of power.

If this all sounds naive, I'll confess that I drafted this last night while full of a little post-neighborhood Fourth of July patriotism. It doesn't change the basic fact that if you want better government, you've got to demand it. How many times in the past year did you stop doing business with a particular store or vendor because of poor customer service on their part? I say this is the same thing, and November is your chance to make a switch. You just have to believe it's worth the bother. And if you can't feel that way in the afterglow of Independence Day, whenever can you?

Bay Area Houston and Brains and Eggs have more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 05, 2006 to Election 2006 | TrackBack

Trial lawyers contribute to incumbent legislators all the time who they believe will pass legislation favorable to them as well.

How is this much different except for the traditional party affiliation of the candidate involved and the party the lobbyists are throwing their money to?

Posted by: Tim on July 5, 2006 9:09 AM

Tim is correct. the whole process stinks and the only way to get rid of it is to look at changing the way campaigns are financed. Public financing and free media time would go a long way to cleaning up this cesspool.

Posted by: mark on July 5, 2006 10:55 AM