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Texas Ethics Commission

The oldest established permanent floating ethics probe in the state

The Chief Justice of our State Supreme Court, ladies and gentlemen.

Nathan Hecht

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, already the longest-serving member of the state’s highest civil court, has the dubious distinction of owning another record: the longest running appeal of a state ethics fine.

With the case dragging into its fifth year, watchdog groups are pointing the finger at Attorney General Greg Abbott for not pressing harder in court for a final resolution.

[…]

Hecht’s case is set to reach its fifth anniversary in Travis County District Court next month, making it by the far the longest-running legal challenge over an ethics panel fine in the agency’s roughly two-decade history.

“This whole matter has been swept under the rug for years and years without any resolution,” said Alex Winslow, director of Texas Watch, which monitors the state Supreme Court and filed the ethics complaint against Hecht. “Greg Abbott has the full discretion for pursuing this case and reaching some resolution for it and for whatever reason he’s opted not to do that.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Abbott’s office said it is not its responsibility to speed the ethics appeal along. That falls on Hecht’s shoulders, according to the Abbott’s office, since he filed the case.

“These watchdog groups’ claims make no sense because, to the extent the case is not advancing quickly, the result is that the attempt to overturn the Ethics Commission’s ruling is not advancing,” Abbott spokesman Thomas Kelley said in a statement.

The watchdog groups, however, said the case has seemingly fallen off the radar for both sides: it has sat dormant for more than a year, with not a document filed since October 2012. That marks the second time the case has gone at least 12 months without so much as a single filing.

With the ethics case hanging overhead, Hecht won re-election in 2012 to the Supreme Court and recently was sworn in for the promotion to chief justice.

“It gets more important every day now. Texans need to know whether the ruling of the Texas Ethics Commission that Hecht violated the law is valid,” said Craig McDonald, director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, which filed the ethics complaint against Keller that resulted in a $25,000 settlement.

“It’s the burden of the attorney general to prosecute the case and from the outside it looks like the attorney general’s office has thrown this case in a dusty file cabinet.”

Abbott’s excuse for doing nothing is mighty convenient when you stop and think about it. As long as Hecht’s appeal is pending, he’s not on the hook for anything. It’s only once his final appeals have finished running their course that he might have to write a check. True, he might beat the rap, but why take the chance if there’s no pressure on him to ever bring this thing to a close? If Greg Abbott has no interest in pursuing a resolution, why should Nathan Hecht? The status quo suits him just fine, thank you very much. Burka, who suggests a way out of this, has more.

Keller accepts a plea deal on ethics charge

She gets off pretty lightly, if you ask me.

BagOfMoney

Sharon Keller, the state’s top criminal court judge, has reached a deal to substantially reduce a record $100,000 fine levied by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to fully disclose millions of dollars of real estate and income in financial statements.

Under the settlement, released Friday, Keller will pay $25,000 to resolve repeated violations of the section of state law that governs personal financial disclosures for elected officials.

In a move that surprised even state watchdog groups, the commission in April 2010 slapped Keller with a $100,000 fine – the largest-ever civil penalty against a politician – after finding that she did not report a total of at least $3.8 million in earnings and property on two annual financial statements.

Keller fixed the omissions on the financial statements, but appealed the commission’s fine to a Travis County state District Court, where it languished for three years.

On Thursday, the Ethics Commission approved the settlement with a 7-0 vote, but referred questions to the attorney general’s office, which represents state agencies in legal matters. The attorney general’s office declined comment.

[…]

In 2007, she became mired in national controversy and fought to hold onto her bench on unrelated charges raised by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that she improperly closed the court to a death row inmate’s appeal, just hours before he was executed. A special master found Keller did nothing legally wrong in that case.

During the death-row case, Keller claimed she could not afford to pay her high-powered attorney, Charles Babcock, prompting a state watchdog group to dig into her personal financial filings, said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice.

Keller’s financial form omissions first were reported by the Dallas Morning News in March 2009. Texans for Public Justice then filed the ethics complaints with the commission that led to the original $100,000 fine.

“We’re disappointed the fine was rolled back by 75 percent,” McDonald said. “We thought the $100,000 fine sent a message to politicians like Keller that they can’t hide assets from the public and their personal financial statements need to be taken seriously.”

See here, here, and here for some of the background on this long and faith-destroying saga. In my opinion, Sharon Keller is the second luckiest politician in the state, trailing Rick Perry by a hair. It’s rare to find someone who has done so much for so long to bring down the wrath of karma on themselves only to get off scotfree again and again. She’s a one-woman rebuttal to the concept of justice in society. I don’t even know what to say.

More leftover campaign cash

The Chron writes about a subject I’ve covered before.

BagOfMoney

Former Rep. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs of Houston used leftover campaign funds to buy a life membership in the National Rifle Association. Former Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas paid a $6,000 Federal Election Commission fine. Former Rep. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land hired a media consultant. And former Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, a Republican lawmaker-turned-lobbyist, showered 35 candidates – including two prominent Democrats – with campaign donations.

Over the past two decades, retired members of the Texas congressional delegation have spent more than a million dollars they had raised for their House and Senate campaigns on expenses incurred after they left office, a Houston Chronicle review of Federal Election Commission records has found. For some of the ex-lawmakers, the expenses continued for years after they last held office in Washington.

The post-congressional spending ranged from small thank-you trinkets for supporters to large expenditures on mailing lists, computer equipment, political consultant fees and donations to other politicians that have allowed some ex-lawmakers to maintain perpetual political operations. Two former lawmakers made payments to family members.

All of the retirement spending was made possible by donors who contributed to the Texas lawmakers’ campaigns while they were holding office. A review of FEC reports indicates that none of the former legislators refunded any funds to their former donors after leaving office.

The existence of these accounts – used by 71 percent of Texas lawmakers who left office over the past two decades – may come as a surprise to many of their constituents. But it’s all perfectly legal – as long as the former officeholders use the money for political or charitable causes.

“You can use campaign funds for any lawful purpose – except they can’t be converted to personal use,” said Michael Toner, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

[…]

Campaign watchdogs say the current law allows former officeholders too much latitude in deciding how to use leftover money.

“There’s actually quite a lot of room for lawmakers to finagle their own campaign budgets,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen.

Holman said the FEC definition of prohibited “personal use” is too narrow and allows former members to indirectly use their funds to benefit family members or themselves by funneling money into organizations they manage or control.

While the Chron story is about former federal officeholders, this is an issue at the state level, too. I thought there was a state law that required all funds to be disbursed within a set period off time, but if that is the case I’ve never seen it enforced. If it were up to me, I’d mandate that any funds left unspent four years after the person’s last day in office would be put into a fund that helps the relevant enforcement agency do its thing. Seems only fitting to me.

[Jim] Turner has the longest-lasting campaign account. The former state legislator and congressman had amassed more than $1 million in campaign funds when he retired rather than face off against veteran Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis in a heavily Republican district. Eight years later, Turner has $990,000 remaining.

Turner said he has kept his campaign account active because he might run for office if “Texas becomes Democratic again.”

“I have always wanted to keep the option open and may want to run for a statewide office,” he said. “I was sidelined by redistricting, but I’ve always enjoyed public service.”

Turner’s last election was in 2002. I don’t care for his strategy of waiting till Texas is sufficiently blue in 2018 or 2022 to maybe use all that money to take another shot at public office. I hope the Democratic primary voters in those years would look askance on someone who sat on a million bucks for 15 or 20 years just in case conditions became favorable for him again instead of using it to help other candidates and causes. My advice to Turner would be to either gut it up and run against Big John Cornyn in 2014 – a million bucks won’t get you that far in a Senate race, but it beats starting out with nothing – or just admit that your time has passed and donate the cash to Battleground Texas. But seriously, don’t keep sitting on it. It’s not doing anyone any good.

TEC approves texting campaign contributions

From Jerad Najvar:

After brief discussion and comments by Jerad Najvar, attorney for Harris County Republicans, the TEC voted unanimously to approve a draft opinion permitting Texas political committees to accept contributions by text message. APPROVED OPINION HERE (the first page is a diagram of each method)

The request proposed two methods for processing text message contributions. One method would have permitted a political committee to accept small-dollar contributions without collecting the contributor’s identifying information, relying on the ability of political committees to accept small-dollar contributions without itemizing contributor information on its campaign finance reports. Although the FEC has approved this method for unitemized contributions, the TEC has previously decided (in Advisory Opinion 207) that Texas law doesn’t permit acceptance of even the smallest of contributions from an anonymous source. This method, therefore, was not approved.

The second method proposed that the committee use a series of reply text messages to collect the contributor’s name, address, and other required information before processing the contribution. This is the method approved today. The final opinion also confirms that the processing firms do not make a prohibited corporate contribution by advancing a portion of each confirmed text contribution to the political committee pursuant to a normal business agreement (in other words, the committee doesn’t have to wait until the contributor pays the cell phone bill before receiving some of the funds).

See here for the full opinion, and here for the background. I think this is perfectly sensible, and I’m glad to see it happen. I doubt this will be revolutionary, but it’s certainly a tool every candidate and grassroots campaign should have in its bag. I will be very interested to see how this gets deployed in the coming elections.

On conflicts of interest

Many members of the Texas Legislature have conflicts of interest, or at least they would if the rules on such in the Lege were more clear.

Advocates of a part-time legislature say the system keeps lawmakers in touch with their constituents. Lawmakers are expected to serve their communities, and check their personal interests at the Capitol’s massive oak doors.

A study of the personal financial statements filed annually by lawmakers with the Texas Ethics Commission shows most lawmakers’ professional lives are deeply intertwined with their government service, or are directly affected by legislation debated each session.

For example, last session saw Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, lead a fight against payday loan controls while candidly acknowledging that the proposed restrictions would hurt his personal payday loan businesses. When pressed during debate whether his vocal opposition constituted a conflict of interest, Elkins replied, “On this particular issue, I am probably as knowledgeable as anybody, and I think the body (the House) needs to hear the expertise.”

Knowledgeable legislators also weighed in last session on reform of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Agency: Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, a lawyer who handled hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of claims against the insurance agency, and then-Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, an insurance agent who has sold windstorm policies. Taylor, recently elected to the Texas Senate, chaired the committee overseeing TWIA; Eiland was vice chair. Both weathered a storm of criticism for their involvement in legislation with a direct impact on their private livelihoods.

What exactly constitutes a conflict of interest for a Texas legislator?

“The laws are too weak to provide any meaningful guidance for legislators and there is no meaningful enforcement,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen.

One solution, Smith said, would be for lawmakers to follow the Texas Local Government Code, which advises local elected officials to abstain from issues affecting businesses in which they have more than a $15,000 investment or receive 10 percent of their income. “That bright line would be more effective,” he said. Currently, lawmakers do not have to disclose a dollar amount for each source of occupational income.

A big part of the problem is that being a legislator means needing to take a six-month leave of absence from your job every other year, for which you get paid all of $7,200. It’s not particularly conducive to holding a regular job, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who want to hire you. It’s just that these are often people and organizations with interests in particular legislation, and they want to hire you for your expertise as a legislator. As you might imagine, that can be a problem, especially since the rules of financial disclosure for legislators allows them a fair bit of leeway in describing how they earn their money. To me, the answer is to recognize that being a legislator is a fulltime job regardless of how much the Lege is actually in session, and pay legislators a salary that recognizes this. Once you do that, you can very strictly limit the amount of things for which they can be paid outside of their legislative duties, and ensure there are sufficient punishments for breaking those rules. I don’t expect anything like this to happen any time soon, but until then I don’t think we have much grounds to complain about what these folks do, or think they have to do, to earn a living.

CM Brown reimburses the city for her magnets

Score one for David Feldman.

Houston City Councilwoman Helena Brown has repaid the city nearly $3,000 in taxpayer money she spent on refrigerator magnets that the Texas Ethics Commission says amount to campaign swag.

City Attorney David Feldman, who had asked Brown to reimburse the city before the commission issued its opinion Thursday, said Brown cut the city a check for $2,989.96 on Friday, the full amount at issue.

Feldman and Brown each said they had sought an opinion from the commission on what invoices show are roughly 13,000 magnets bearing a photograph of Brown and her office phone number, email address and postal address.

[…]

The ethics commission sided with Feldman.

“In our opinion, the refrigerator magnet is a self-promotion of a public officer because the name and photograph of the public officer appear in an unduly conspicuous way and the three-item list promotes the public officer’s priorities,” the opinion stated. “The refrigerator magnet at issue constitutes ‘political advertising.'”

See here for the background. I’d link to the TEC’s opinion so you could read it yourself, but it doesn’t appear to be posted yet – a search on their opinion search page (which says “Last revision: November 8”) comes up empty, and the advisory opinions page was last updated in April. At the time I thought this wasn’t that big a deal, but looking at the image of the magnet again now, I think the TEC got it right. You might have thought that CM Brown, of all people, would have wanted to pay for something like this herself rather than let the taxpayers cover the cost, but that’s the way it goes. This is the end of the matter, since there was no complaint filed and the money has been paid back.

Time for the biennial attempt to de-fang the Travis County DA

Same story, next chapter.

The Texas Ethics Commission, long criticized for its lax enforcement of public officials, is considering a plan to take over all ethics enforcement from the Travis County district attorney’s office, which has a long history of prosecuting errant state officeholders.

The eight-member Ethics Commission, meeting Thursday in Austin, is scheduled to consider a recommendation “transplanting certain existing investigative and prosecutorial authority and budget from the Travis County Public Integrity Unit to the Texas Ethics Commission.”

“Only the authority and budget relating to the conduct of public officials elected and appointed should be so reassigned,” the recommendation states. “Many of the existing personnel staffing these functions would come across as seamlessly as possible.”

David Reisman, executive director of the Ethics Commission, couldn’t immediately be reached. Tim Sorrells, the agency’s general counsel, confirmed late Wednesday that it was scheduled to discuss the recommendation.

The move came after a Texas Sunset Advisory Commission report last summer criticized the commission for its lax enforcement history, even though it stopped short of recommending that it become a beefed-up enforcement agency for state ethics laws.

News of the Ethics Commission’s move immediately drew criticism from government watchdog groups, who insisted the change would take Texas’ ethics enforcement from bad to worse.

“After all these years of inaction, they want to go and take away the only effective ethics enforcement Texas has and put it in an agency that has done almost nothing,” said Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen.

Noting that watchdog groups were hoping for ramped-up enforcement by the Ethics Commission, not a takeover of the county’s Public Integrity Unit that has prosecuted the only criminal violations, he added: “This is a dream turned into a nightmare.”

We’ve been down this road before, in one form or another, in every legislative session I’ve observed, which goes back to 2003, and undoubtedly well before that. In the past, the main threat had been to move this function into the Attorney General’s office. If the TEC did a reasonable job of enforcement this wouldn’t be a completely ridiculous suggestion, but we know how that goes. It’s not all the TEC’s fault – they know they’re ultimately under the Legislature’s thumb, so it’s good survival strategy on their part to not be too obnoxious. At this point, the best argument for letting the Travis County DA continue in this role is that they are not connected to state government, which gives them an independence no other option would have. I didn’t expect anything to come of this, and it turns out that the TEC has since had second thoughts.

The Texas Ethics Commission backed away Thursday from a controversial proposal to take certain investigative authority away from the Travis County district attorney’s office, but the agency approved two recommendations aimed at enhancing criminal inquiries of state elected officials.

The draft proposal to ask the Legislature to take investigative power away from those local prosecutors — and give it to an agency that has often been described as weak and ineffective — sparked outrage from government watchdogs and strong opposition from the Travis County DA’s office.

It also drew unusually strong condemnation from one of the eight Ethics Commission members, Tom Harrison. A letter from Harrison, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting, was read aloud by fellow Commissioner Tom Ramsay. In it, Harrison argued that making the commission the lead prosecutor of state elected officials would frustrate its “primary purpose” and set up a statutory conflict of interest.

“Members of the commission are appointed by elected state leaders and would be enforcing criminal actions against those same elected officials,” Harrison wrote, according to Ramsay. “If it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it.”

In face of stiff opposition, Jim Clancy, one of the commissioners who had made the proposal, quickly backed off and said the intent was never to gut the Travis DA’s budget and power. But he said the commission needs more money and authority to to pursue serious corruption allegations.

So that’s probably it for this particular variation, but as always it bears watching, because sooner or later something like it will pop up again. EoW and Burka have more.

Texting campaign contributions

I see no reason why this should not be allowed.

A Houston-based PAC is asking the Texas Ethics Commission to approve a proposal that would allow the committee to solicit text message contributions from donors in the state.

The Federal Election Commission has approved a text-to-donate model for federal campaigns, but demand for the service is already spreading down the ballot. The PAC—Harris County Republicans—wants the Ethics Commission to move quickly so donation functionality can be added to a voter mobilization app developed by PAC founder Robert Flanagan.

“When a campaign buys the app from the company, it’s customized for their jurisdiction,” says Jerad Najvar, the PAC’s attorney. “They put it in the app store, and the volunteers for that person’s campaign can then download.”

The app syncs with the state’s voter registration database so that once a volunteer downloads the app, an algorithm runs contacts against the voter file and identifies those who are registered in the jurisdiction. From there, the volunteer can call or email highlighted contacts with one touch. Soon Flanagan hopes users will be forwarding the keyword “donate” to their friends with the touch of a button.

[…]

Najvar thinks the company’s text donation model is readily passable under Texas law, but he’s not sure about the timetable for approval from the state’s Ethics Commission, noting “the TEC is not as efficient as the FEC.”

You can, of course, already make a contribution from your smartphone – just browse to your favorite candidate’s webpage, or go to Act Blue, and give to your heart’s content. The distinction between an app and a webpage on a smartphone is one without much difference – they’re both just fancy ways of accessing a web server and backend database. As this KHOU story notes, there are a few extra wrinkles with texting.

For example, if someone makes a text donation over his employer’s phone and the employer simply pays the company cell phone bill, it could be considered an illegal corporate campaign contribution. Then again, people who aren’t supposed to contribute to campaigns, like foreign nationals, may innocently break the law by texting contributions.

Najvar predicts Texas candidates will simply put a verification screen in their text message donation process, asking contributors to certify that their contributions are legal.

“The issue here, of course, is verification on the candidate side,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU political analyst. “He or she has to prove that these are legitimate campaign contributions and has to be able to back it up with some verification.”

And cell phone carriers are skimming a huge portion of donors’ campaign contributions, political operatives say. In some cases, Najvar says, phone companies are keeping anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent of text message donations.

Nonetheless, he’s convinced the questions raised by the new technology will be resolved as more campaign money flows in from text messages.

I would think you could solve the verification issue by having the contribution site send back a link for the donor to click to verify that he or she is the bill-paying owner of the phone, and is an American citizen. I suppose that eliminates anyone who’s still using a non-smartphone, but how many such people with an interest in texting campaign contributions could there possibly be? I figure if this catches on, someone will push legislation to limit the amount that a provider could skim off the top. I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t become reality soon. A press release from Attorney Najvar is here, and Texas Watchdog has more.

Helena’s magnets

It’s been awhile since my last Helena Brown post, hasn’t it?

Houston City Attorney David Feldman has asked Councilwoman Helena Brown to reimburse the city nearly $3,000 in taxpayer money she spent on refrigerator magnets that he contends amount to re-election swag.

Brown’s office has declined to pay the money back, and both sides have asked the Texas Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion on who is right.

The first-term councilwoman is distributing thousands of the refrigerator magnets to her District A constituents.

Brown has hired her own attorney, who wrote to Feldman that the purpose of the magnets is to make her office more accessible to her constituents, “most of whom spend a majority of their time at the home, so that they might have her office information handy for speedy constituent response resolution.”

“The thousands of magnets will be included in a mailout to the constituents of District A when we announce the District A Civic Convention to be held later this year, ” Brown said in an email last month. “The purpose of the magnets is to facilitate constituent communication and, therefore, timely response to community needs.”

Feldman, in documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle through a Texas Public Information Act request, has asked Brown to pay back the money, alleging the magnets constitute political advertising. That would be a misdemeanor violation of the Texas Election Code.

“The Council Member has been in communication with the Ethics Commission prior to the City Attorney’s request for an opinion from them. The Council Member also has requested an opinion from the Ethics Commission,” John Griffing, Brown’s communications director, stated in an email.

Feldman didn’t file a complaint, he just asked for an opinion. The TEC’s next meeting is November 29, and we won’t hear anything until then. I have to say, of all the things CM Brown has done while in office, I find this to be one pretty innocuous. I worked in customer service for a long time, and the slogans on those magnets sound like the sort of things that would come out of a “Mission, Vision, and Values” meeting. Yeah, it’s probably better to use campaign funds on this sort of thing, especially for one who likes to be apocalyptic about city spending, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t think it’s a great sin to charge it to one’s Council budget. We’ll see what the TEC thinks about it. Campos has more.

Drainage madness

I have three things to say about this.

A year ago, Taxpayers for Financial Accountability campaigned against Houston’s Proposition 1, which called for a pay-as-you-go fund to shore up the city’s drainage infrastructure in part through a monthly fee on homes and businesses.

They lost. The measure narrowly passed and the first bills went out in July.

This year the committee is still campaigning against the measure, this time by endorsing a slate of city candidates who opposed Proposition 1.

The problem is, according to a complaint filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, you can’t do both. Taxpayers for Financial Accountability was formed as a specific purpose committee, which means it can spend money on a cause or on candidates it names at the time of its formation. General purpose committees can change their focus each election, but there’s more paperwork and rules and donors required to form them.

A campaign manager for a candidate who didn’t get the endorsement of Taxpayers for Financial Accountability says the group is violating the law by acting outside its specific purpose in promoting eight candidates in a mailer being distributed this weekend.

“I believe we’re staying in our purpose by promoting the idea that the rain tax is regressive and a huge tax increase,” said Robert Glaser, the committee’s treasurer. “We’re recognizing folks who have the same point of view that we do.”

[…]

But even Paul Bettencourt, a leading figure of a separate committee that opposed Prop. 1, has distanced himself from the mailer and called it “stupid” because of the apparent violation of the election code.

1. When even a shameless opportunist like Paul Bettencourt says you’ve crossed a line, you’ve probably crossed a line. I can’t find the exact statute that’s relevant here, but it seems to that this isn’t isn’t a particularly subtle distinction. If this is allowable, then I don’t see what the point of being a special purpose committee is. Hope you guys have some money put aside for the fine you’re going to be levied, fellas.

2. I continue to be mystified by the level of animosity some people have towards the drainage fee, and I continue to wait for these opponents to tell me what their alternate solution for Houston’s drainage and flooding problems would be. If you don’t think we have a problem that needs to be solved, be honest enough to say so. If you believe you have a better solution than the one we voted on last year, tell me what it is. Prop 1 opponents did neither last year, and they’re still doing neither now.

3. Speaking of voting, I’m quite sure that every candidate on this slate has said something about the need to “respect the will of the voters” in regard to the red light camera referendum. Why isn’t there the same need to respect the will of the voters on Prop 1?

The $25,000 question

What the hell?

A $25,000 campaign contribution to a Houston school board member normally would raise eyebrows for its size.

Add in the fact that the donation was not listed in the trustee’s financial disclosure forms, and the five-figure check becomes evidence in a lawsuit.

A Houston construction firm, the Gil Ramirez Group, alleged in new federal court filings this week that the check to HISD board member Larry Marshall’s campaign was part of a bribery and conspiracy scheme meant to benefit certain companies.

The check to Marshall’s campaign in November 2009 came from David Medford, who runs Fort Bend Mechanical. The Stafford company has received millions of dollars from the Houston Independent School District for construction work.

“Anytime you see a $25,000 contribution to a school board member from a company that does business with the school district – and that large contribution is not reported as required by law – one has to conclude undue influence is at play,” said Chad Dunn, a Houston attorney.

Dunn is representing the Gil Ramirez Group in the federal lawsuit against Marshall and HISD.

Can someone please explain to me why school board elections aren’t subject to campaign contribution limits like Houston municipal elections are? Because I sure can’t think of a legitimate reason for anyone to give $25K to a school board candidate, let alone an entity that does business with the school district. If this isn’t something that can be addressed by those new ethics rules HISD is considering then it really needs to be addressed by the Legislature in 2013. Campos has more.

Sometimes, a little spite goes only a little way

I’ve decided I’m more amused by this story than anything else.

Last year, six tea party members in the Houston area promised to make Austin City Council members pay for rebuking Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law, and they used extensive campaign finance complaints as their tool of retribution. The result: $1,500 in small fines for minor infractions.

Five of the seven ethics complaints — one was filed against each member of the council — have ended over the past few months in the equivalent of a plea bargain.

The fines ranged from $100 in the case of Mike Martinez to $500 each for Chris Riley and Sheryl Cole. In those settlements, council members acknowledged technical violations, such as filing a form a few days late. But they maintained that the extensive list of complaints lacked substance. Council offices said they agreed to the fines to get the matters resolved.

[…]

The complaints were filed after the council decided to end all city business with Arizona and limit travel there by city employees. The decision came in response to an Arizona law requiring local and state law enforcement officers to try to determine whether people are in the U.S. legally if there is a “reasonable suspicion” they might not be.

The leader of this little exercise is some yahoo in Conroe who apparently has plenty of time on his hands; he’s also filed a bunch of complaints against legislators, with mostly chump change results, which admittedly is the norm with anything the toothless TEC tackles, though none of the complaints described could be considered anything but minor. If low-level harassment was the goal, I guess they achieved it. Seems to me there ought to be a better way to police these things than to rely on oppo researchers, cranks, and the occasional concerned citizen, but this is the system we have.

Ethics ID

According to Martha, State Rep. Ken Legler (R, HD144) has filed HB1036, which would require two forms of ID to file an ethics complaint with the TEC. Who knew that ethics complaint fraud was so rampant in Texas? Clearly, our Attorney General has fallen down on the job in investigating this. I just want to know if Rep. Legler would accept an amendment to allow a concealed handgun license as an acceptable form of ID for these purposes. Because that’s how we roll around here.

More on the new city ethics code

Not everyone likes the city’s new ethics regulations.

“Instead of enforcing ethics standards, all of these things seem to license unethical behavior,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for government watchdog Public Citizen in Washington, D.C. The exceptions to the city’s new gift policy “license unlimited gifts and unlimited travel, and that is exactly what codes like this are supposed to prevent. This is very weak. There are some states that have no gift rules, and this pretty much rivals that type of standard.”

There are other exemptions to the rule, including if the gift is worth less than $50 and if it comes from a relative or someone with whom the elected official has a regular social acquaintance.

Theoretically, he said, that could mean a lobbyist could pay for numerous meals as long as they were under $50, or could provide lavish gifts by saying they were friends.

[…]

“The state standard, when it comes to gifts, is much too lenient,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan ethics watchdog in Austin. “An ethics policy that allows an individual or a business to give an extravagant gift of travel or entertainment kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an ethical wall.”

Feldman defended the law as one that will allow significantly stronger prosecutorial tools for elected city officials who cross the line.

And, he pointed out, they still are required by the Texas Ethics Commission to disclose any gifts they receive annually.

“We had no intention to prosecute someone for an offense under the ordinance that would not be an offense under state law,” he said.

He added that the most significant problem with most ethics rules is one of enforcement. Because he has promised to prosecute violators of these restrictions in municipal court, he said the revisions are sufficient.

“I hope I’ve made it clear to everyone that we fully intend to enforce this,” he said.

Certainly, a big part of the problem with the Texas Ethics Commission is lax enforcement, and miniscule punishments. (Often-unclear requirements that are frequently violated inadvertently is another issue, but one that gets less attention than the others.) If the city really is serious about enforcement, then that should make a big difference. As for Holman and McDonald’s complaints about what isn’t in the code, that is a concern, but if the voters cared enough to vote out people who acted egregiously then there’d be less of that behavior. Judging from state elections, voters don’t do that very often. That’s not an argument against changing the code in the way that Holman and McDonald advocate, but it is a reason why you don’t see much of a push for it beyond folks like them.

Revising the city ethics code

I don’t know enough about the specifics of this to draw any firm conclusions, but it sounds reasonable enough from the description.

The city is poised to significantly tighten its ethics rules, closing loopholes that allow lobbyists to avoid registration and criminalizing some violations of a stricter code of conduct for city officials.

“It’s a very, very thorough review,” said City Councilman Mike Sullivan, whom Mayor Annise Parker credited for spearheading the changes.

Sullivan said he has felt the need to strengthen the city’s ethics rules ever since he has been on City Council.

On numerous occasions, lawyers representing companies or individuals have come to him to discuss city policy, he said. Rarely were they registered as lobbyists for the entities they represented, often saying they were at City Hall on behalf of a legal client, Sullivan said.

“That’s disingenuous to me, and that really disturbed me,” he said. “I’m about openness and transparency, and that really didn’t sit well with me, or the public.”

Under a proposal City Council is expected to vote on next week, that loophole, along with a host of others, would be closed. Now, unless a lawyer is performing services that cannot be done by anyone else, such as representing a client in a legal proceeding, the individual must register as a lobbyist.

Nice to see at least a temporary thaw in the Parker/Sullivan relationship. The real question with these things is the consequences for violating them. How likely are you to get caught, and what happens when you do? City Attorney David Feldman says violators will be prosecuted for misdemeanors under this ordinance. If so, then it ought to have a positive effect. We’ll see.

Travis County DA to investigate Double Dip Driver

The Republican wave helped him survive re-election this year, but State Rep. Joe Driver’s troubles aren’t over just yet.

Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit, which oversees official corruption cases, said Tuesday that prosecutors had begun reviewing the travel practices of Rep. Joe Driver before the November elections. Now that the elections are over, that review has turned into an active criminal investigation, Cox said.

“We were presented a complaint that appeared to be sufficient to require additional investigation to determine whether or not the law was violated,” Cox said. “Now that the election has passed, the review, and the investigation, is taking place.”

Driver, a Garland Republican who was re-elected to his 10th two-year term, has acknowledged that for years he collected reimbursements from taxpayers for travel he already had paid for using donated campaign money. He paid for luxury hotels, airline tickets, meals and conference registration fees with campaign funds and then submitted receipts for those same expenses to the state.

Driver said he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong, but he reimbursed his campaign $49,426 after the AP revealed the double dipping.

It’s a pretty high bar to clear to be worthy of an indictment, but if Driver really was dumb enough to think what he was doing wasn’t wrong, the odds are good he did something dumb enough to get nailed for. And he may have company in the dock, thanks to similar transgressions committed by House GOP Caucus Chair Larry Taylor.

Because lawmakers are not required to disclose travel expense reimbursements, Taylor acknowledged his handling of expenses could look bad. He said he always repays his campaign account after the state reimbursement arrives, and he produced bank statements to back up his claim.

An ethics watchdog, however, filed a complaint against Taylor with the Travis County district attorney last week, questioning the lawmaker’s online bank statements.

According to the complaint filed by Dave Palmer, a California-based ethics watchdog, Taylor has used his campaign/officeholder account to pay for $31,952 worth of travel expenses, including 90 airfares, 12 hotel bills, 5 conference registration fees and a car rental – all of which Taylor also billed to the state. The Houston Chronicle independently verified more than 80 of the airfares that showed up on both Taylor’s campaign expense account and in state vouchers for reimbursement since 2005.

Don’t be surprised if there are others like Driver and Taylor out there, too. Greg has more.

TPJ files complaint against King Street Patriots

From the inbox:

TPJ today filed a formal complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission alleging that the King Street Patriots and KSP/True the Vote have violated the state’s prohibition on corporate contributions to political parties and candidates. The complaint says the groups appear to have made repeated in-kind corporate contributions to the Harris County Republican Party and a slate of Republican candidates for legislative, judicial and county offices.

Good for them. This group, which has provided all of the fodder Leo Vasquez has used against Houston Votes, has been claiming to be a non-profit but as The American Independent pointed out last week, they sure haven’t acted like one:

The King Street Patriots (KSP), which representatives say is registered with the IRS as a nonprofit 501(c)4 corporation, has hosted regular forums for GOP candidates at its Hempstead Highway headquarters without extending invitations to their Democratic opponents. KSP president Catherine Engelbrecht said her group is abiding by the law, but legal experts said the forums, if partisan in nature, flout state prohibitions against corporate campaign contributions.

“You can’t operate a candidate forum where you bring in only one side of the spectrum. If you do you’re a political committee,” said Austin attorney Buck Wood, a Texas elections expert. “If a nonprofit takes money to pay for candidate forums and is expending that money to expose candidates for public office to audiences on a regular basis, then I have no doubt you’re a political committee under Texas law.”

When told about experts’ observations that KSP may be breaking laws, Engelbrecht disagreed.

“Well, we’re not,” she said.

Boy, you can’t argue with logic like that. See more from the Independent here, the full TPJ press release here, and the ethics complaint here. The Trib has a response from the teabaggers, who in typical fashion accuse everyone else of being the bullies.

Finally, on a related note, the TDP announced that it is adding the KSPers to their lawsuit against the Harris County Tax Assessor over voter registration issues. Click on to see their press release, and click here to see the accompanying media kit. Stace and PDiddie have more.

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Double-Dip Driver

In case you missed this the other day.

State Rep. Joe Driver of Garland, who rails against the evils of runaway government spending, admitted Monday that he has pocketed thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for travel expenses that his campaign had already funded.

The veteran Republican legislator, faced with findings from an investigation by The Associated Press, acknowledged in an interview that for years he has been submitting the same receipts – for luxury hotels, airline tickets, meals, fees and incidentals – to both his campaign and to the Texas House. He has also been collecting thousands of dollars in state mileage reimbursements for travel in vehicles for which his campaign has shelled out more than $100,000 since 2000.

The AP’s review of hundreds of pages of state and campaign travel records found that Driver double-billed for at least $17,431.55 in travel expenses, much of it at upscale out-of-state hotels, since 2005. The number could go higher, but House travel records before mid-2005 have already been destroyed. Driver has been in office for 18 years. The double-billing figure does not include the vehicle expenses.

I am just boggled by this. This is the sort of thing that gets people fired in the real world. If you think real hard, you can probably recall is fairly high-profile recent example of a CEO getting booted for filing bogus expense reports. The two situations aren’t identical, but the principle – Thou Shalt Not Submit Reimbursement Claims For Expenses Thou Did Not (or Should Not) Have Incurred – is the same. This is not rocket science, and Driver’s response to it is just pathetic.

Driver insists he thought the double-billing was perfectly appropriate – until talking about it with the AP.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like it is now. If you bring it up that way,” he said.

[…]

First elected to the House in 1992, he didn’t have “a clue” when he first began claiming reimbursements for travel paid for by his campaign, he said.

“If I knew it was wrong, I wouldn’t have done it that way,” Driver said. “I wouldn’t have done it just to make money.”

I have no idea why he did it, and I have no idea how he could not realize that it was wrong. Interestingly, Driver claims he was told what he was doing was OK by “somebody” at the Texas Ethics Commission, which the TEC denies it ever would have done. I’m inclined to believe them, because again, how could anyone think this was kosher?

For his troubles, Driver has bought himself a criminal investigation and a tougher race. Driver’s district closely mirrored the state in 2008, with McCain defeating Obama 55-44 and Sam Houston getting the high Democratic score with 45.6%. Driver’s opponent is Jamie Dorris, whom I have not met but have heard good things about. I’ll bet a lot more folks will hear about her now.

The Statesman takes an appropriate tone in an editorial about Driver’s behavior. One thing from that story about the DA looking into this needs to be noted:

GOP Rep. Chuck Hopson, chairman of the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee, said he had called [Travis County DA Rosemary] Lehmberg to see whether a criminal investigation is under way while he contemplates his own internal probe of conduct “that doesn’t make the rest of legislators look good.”

Lehmberg said she had spoken to Hopson and said House officials are “probably going to defer to us.”

“We don’t want to run into each other and be gathering documents and looking at documents at the same time,” she said.

You never know what might be found once these rocks start getting turned over. I will be disappointed, but not particularly surprised, if other legislators have made the same error as Driver. One hopes none of them have been anywhere near as egregious about it. BOR and the DMN have more.

Perry settles lawsuit with Bell

The settlement in the lawsuit by Chris Bell against the Rick Perry campaign over allegations of illegal campaign contributions to Perry by the Republican Governors Association (RGA) is now official.

Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign paid $426,000 to former Democratic challenger Chris Bell to settle a lawsuit.

Bell, Perry’s unsuccessful Democratic challenger in 2006, sued the Perry campaign a few years ago, claiming that it had accepted contributions that were improperly routed through the Republican Governors Association to hide their true source.

Shortly before giving Perry $1 million in the closing days of the 2006 campaign, the RGA received a couple of major donations from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry.

The Perry campaign paid Bell on March 3, the day after this year’s primary. The money went to Bell personally, not to a political campaign.

Actually, if you read the lawsuit Bell filed, the claim Bell made that he said entitled him to damages was that the Republican Governors Association PAC was not a qualified PAC in Texas at the time of the donation. The Bob Perry issue was mentioned in the suit, but it was a political matter, the idea being that by having him give a million bucks to the RGA, which then sent two donations totaling that amount to Perry, that donation was effectively hidden from public view. (See here for a copy of the original Chron story reporting on that.) You may recall that towards the end of the race, the Bell campaign got an infusion of over a million dollars from Houston trial lawyer John O’Quinn, which Perry used to bash Bell. One can certainly understand why Perry didn’t want it widely known that he was taking a similar infusion from this well-known Republican sugar daddy. But the crux of the lawsuit was the claim that the RGA was not legally able to make a donation to Perry’s campaign at that time because they were not officially recognized as a political organization in Texas. (Or at the federal level, apparently.)

Interestingly, the Houston Chronicle reported [Friday] morning that the Democratic Governors Association, which has given former Houston Mayor Bill White more than $1 million this year, has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from Texas donors.

That Chron story is here. I understand the parallel that is being drawn, but unless someone is claiming that the DGA hasn’t filed the proper paperwork as was the case with the RGA in 2006, it has nothing to do with anything. Fortunately, the full Statesman article clears that up.

Whereas the Bell lawsuit alleged that Perry did not properly report contributions from the governors’ group in 2006, White spokeswoman Katy Bacon said White’s campaign made the required disclosures when his out-of-state money came in. The ethics commission confirmed that the proper reports were filed.

It also notes that as Perry has been the Chair of the RGA, some of their abundant resources will likely be headed his way.

TPJ files ethics complaint against Perry

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit watchdog group, filed a complaint [Wednesday] urging the Texas Ethics Commission to require Gov. Rick Perry to provide detailed reports of campaign spending on living and entertainment expenditures related to the Governor’s Mansion.

TPJ alleges that Perry violated campaign disclosure laws by not itemizing how it spent more than $800,000 for such items as food, beverages and flowers. Instead of itemizing the spending, the campaign routinely reports lump sums as much as $63,000 as simply “Mansion Fund.” Since 2001, the campaign reported 145 “Mansion Fund” expenditures totaling more than $816,000, according to TPJ.

Seems straightforward enough, but there’s always room for the TEC to pull a Bill Ceverha maneuver and force the Lege to clean up after them. Never underestimate the possibility of shenanigans, that’s all I’m saying. A statement from the Bill White campaign is beneath the fold.

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Keller may yet face criminal charges

Grits read through the TEC ruling against Sharon Keller, who was hit with a record $100K fine for various failures to disclose financial information, and notes that the system isn’t done with Keller yet, as there is still the matter of a pending criminal complaint against her.

I called [Travis County Attorney David] Escamilla to ask about the status of the criminal complaint, which has now been sitting at his office for more than a year. Escamilla had not yet read the TEC opinion himself, declaring that he’d asked two of his prosecutors to review it and report back to him tomorrow with a recommendation how to proceed.

Escamilla and I spoke both on and off the record. On the record, he said he hadn’t moved forward before now because he’d been been waiting for the Ethics Commission to complete its investigation. He said he would give “great weight” to the Ethics Commissions findings of fact and conclusions of law, which would have a “great influence” on whether his office elected to proceed with prosecution. Escamilla was particularly impressed that the TEC identified 13 different alleged Class B misdemeanor violations and said the remarkable volume of violations might also be a factor in whether to go forward.

IMO prosecutors should particularly investigate the circumstances surrounding the property purchased by her father and the boards of directors Judge Keller sat on but did not disclose. Why wouldn’t her father tell her about those properties? And if Daddy listed her as a company director without her knowledge or participation in the company’s affairs, doesn’t that begin to look like Keller’s father has been setting up dummy companies for some unknown purpose that he’s been concealing from his family? It’s a legitimate question if we are to believe the Presiding Judge’s denials that she knew anything about the assets and corporate affiliations in her amended ethics disclosure.

My guess: By a long shot, the last shoe hasn’t dropped in this saga.

I would not be surprised if there are charges brought against Keller. And while Grits frets over the possibility of Keller resigning as a result and being replaced by John Bradley, I think she’d continue to insist she’s done nothing wrong and would stick it out till the bitter end. Which ought to be the ballot box in 2012, followed by whatever the criminal justice system may have in store for her. That’s my hope, anyway. See also editorials from the DMN and Star Telegram for more.

Keller gets slammed by Ethics Commission

Wow.

The Texas Ethics Commission has levied a record $100,000 fine against Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller for failing to make full financial disclosures in 2007 and 2008.

[…]

The commission in an order made public on its Web site today said Keller in 2006 failed to report between 100-499 shares of stock, $61,500 in income, interests in eight properties valued that year at $2.4 million and two expenses accepted under the honorarium exception for $3,760

The commission said in 2007 Keller failed to report the stock, nine sources of income totaling $121,500 and two honoraria valued at $6,010. She also failed to report the eight properties again, then valued at $2.8 million.

Keller last year filed amended reports making the disclosures. She said her father made investments for her and her son without her knowledge.

You can read the order here. Apparently, they had as much sympathy for her defense as she usually does for most appellants that appear before her. As the Trib notes, this makes Keller the holder of the Biggest Fine Ever Levied By The TEC record. Nice job!

And there’s more. As Coby notes, unlike previous record holder Jerry Eversole, Keller doesn’t have a zillion dollars in her campaign account, so either she gets to pay this out of her own money, or she gets some Republican sugar daddy to write her a check. And as Grits notes, the great irony in all this is that the ethics complaint against her began at a time when her attorney was arguing that the state should pay for her legal fees in the matter of the judicial conduct complaint against her. A story in the DMN about all of her undisclosed finances put the lie to her plea that she was just too poor to pay for her attorney. There’s still a criminal complaint pending against her in Travis County as well. Now that the TEC has ruled, we may hear something about it. Been quite the busy week for old business, hasn’t it?

UPDATE: I somehow overlooked in my initial reading of the story the fact that Keller says she will appeal the fine.

“Judge Keller is very disappointed by the excessive penalty assessed against her by the Texas Ethics Commission,” [her attorney Ed] Shack said. “As the commission found, Judge Keller voluntarily amended her financial disclosures shortly after she was made aware of the matter. And her conduct was not intentional, but rather the product of her father’s acquisition and management of properties without any input from her.”

The irony of this whole saga just staggers me.

Disclose, please

This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough by itself.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for corporations to pour money into influencing Texas elections, but the state ethics commission today is taking up a rule to make sure voters know who is spending the money.

Under the rule up for a commission vote, corporations will be able to spend money to advocate for the election or defeat of candidates, but they will have to file campaign reports disclosing where the money came from. Direct donations of corporate money to candidates will continue to be banned.

However, Craig McDonald, of Texans for Public Justice, said the rule may not require trade associations and political “front” groups to actually disclose the names of their donors. McDonald said new state and federal laws probably will be needed for that.

The Texas Association of Business is one of the most controversial Austin groups that have used corporate money in the past to influence state elections. TAB President Bill Hammond said if the group advertises in future races, it will disclose its role, but not the names of the individual corporate donors.

Requiring the campaign reports is a no-brainer. If a corporation is going to act like a PAC, it needs to do the things that a PAC has to do as well. The loophole for trade associations and front groups is big enough to drive a tank through, however, and will render this requirement meaningless if it isn’t closed. The comment from Bill Hammond should make that clear. There is already talk of federal legislation to require disclosure of donors to such organizations, but that shouldn’t stop Texas from passing its own law as well. And please, make there be some real penalties for not following the law. Leaving it all up to the TEC will do nothing to deter violations.

What to do with all that leftover campaign cash?

The Texas Trib explores the question of what happens to the money after a candidate drops out or an incumbent retires.

Let’s say you’re a donor to a candidate or an elected official who quits a race mid-campaign or chooses not to run again. What if you made a contribution to one of the nine Texas legislators who decided not to seek reelection this year — to Plano’s Brian McCall (who had nearly $542,000 in his campaign account, according to his latest filing with the Texas Ethics Commission), or Lubbock’s Carl Isett (nearly $139,000), or San Antonio’s Frank Corte (more than $123,000)? What if you gave to Tom Schieffer, the former Texas House member and American diplomat who campaigned as a prospective nominee for governor before deciding against running, or to Jack McDonald, the former tech executive who raised more than $805,000 while considering a challenge to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul that he utimately thought better of? What happens to your money?

Almost-candidates and former officer-holders have wide latitude in how they can unload their campaign cash. The same rules apply to lawmakers who leave office and to abortive hopefuls. According to Texas campaign finance attorney Ed Shack, the only firm Thou Shalt Not is that candidates can’t dip into contributions for personal use (which is a narrowly proscribed territory, as shown by the Texas Ethics Commission’s recent approval of Sen. John Whitmire’s purchase of $90,000 in baseball tickets with campaign funds). Candidates must also clear campaign-associated accounts within six years after they get out of office or leave electoral politics, whichever is later.

As long as they make sure they’re using contributions in a way that’s related to serving in office or campaigning, the recipients of your cash have a few options. They can give it to their political parties, other candidates or political committees, charities, or to the state comptroller for deposit in the state treasury (though a spokesperson for the Comptroller’s office said they don’t have a record of that ever happening). As long as it’s used for the express purpose of setting up or helping a scholarship program, candidates can even donate to schools or colleges. State candidates can also opt to refund contributions to donors; the only limit is that they can’t reimburse more money to a donor than that donor contributed during the past two years.

Well, I don’t know what will happen with any of these folks’ money, but I do know that it’s now been five years since former State Rep. Steve Wolens and former US Rep. Jim Turner left their offices, and as of the last reporting deadline each of them still had over a million dollars in the bank. As neither of them is on a ballot this year, I for one would like to know what they plan on doing with all that money. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are some other elections of interest this year, and there are plenty of good homes for their dollars if they want to look for them. What’s it gonna be, fellas?

Chron raises questions about Al Hoang’s residency and campaign finance reports

The main question I have is why is this story just being published now, on Christmas Eve, and not before either of the elections?

Houston City Councilman-elect Al Hoang and his wife claimed homestead exemptions on two separate homes, according to public records that also raise questions about whether Hoang meets the city’s residency requirements.

[…]

In addition, Hoang’s campaign finance reports filed prior to the Nov. 3 election and Dec. 12 runoff fail to include certain required elements, including the dates of donations and the occupations of donors who gave more than $500 in a reporting period. The omissions are so numerous that it is impossible to determine whether donations were reported multiple times or exceeded legal limits.

I’ll point out that I noted various incongruities on Hoang’s finance reports, such as the lack of dates and the double-reporting of expenses as in kind donations, on November 2 and again on December 9. I didn’t go into a great deal of detail because I didn’t have the time or the resources to dig deeper. But surely these issues were known beforehand. And Greg brought up the matter of Hoang’s residency in a post dated December 11, though it was actually published on the 13th. So again I ask, why are we just now reading about this in the Chron? Isn’t this something that ought to have been aired before the election?

A city ordinance requires candidates for district council positions to live in the district for a year prior to the election. When he filed for office Aug. 18, Hoang listed his address as 4403 Bugle, in District F, and signed a notarized statement saying he had lived in the district for 13 months.

Harris County Appraisal District records show that Hoang purchased the home on March 3. Voter registration records show he was registered at an address in District G until September, and his registration at the Bugle address took effect Oct. 16 — less than three weeks before the election.

Hoang claims a homestead exemption for the house on Bugle, records show. Hoang’s wife, Hang Nguyen, also claims a homestead exemption on a house listed in her name in Pearland, according to Brazoria County Appraisal District records. Hoang and his wife owned the home jointly until March 5, 2008, when he transferred the deed to her, the records show.

This is the same basic situation that sunk Jack Christie’s candidacy in 2007. Like Christie, I presume Hoang will eventually have to fork over some dough to make up for the extra homestead exemption. I presume the DA will not bring charges, since that sort of prosecution never seems to happen. What I want to know is, if all this is true, how can he be sworn in as the District F Council Member? What’s the point of a residency statute if it can be so easily flouted? I’ve said before and I’ll say again, residency isn’t that big an issue for me. If people want to elect someone who doesn’t live where they do to represent them, that’s their choice. But that’s assuming they know that about the candidate in question, which may or may not be the case here, and given that we have a law about this, then surely we ought to draw a line somewhere. Is there a remedy in the ordinance for this, or is it simply a matter of Hoang paying up on his taxes? If the latter is all that there is, then what’s the point of the residency requirement?

UPDATE: Martha has more.

Improving campaign finance disclosure

This is a step in the right direction.

The [Texas Ethics Commission] adopted new rules last week that, beginning this summer, will require anyone running for office to use 19 defined subject categories to describe any goods, services or other things of value purchased by their campaigns.

In the past, these candidates chose vague terms — think “public relations” — that didn’t clearly define the purpose of their political expenditures, violating state law and raising concerns about whether the money was converted to their personal use. (Campaign funds are raised from political supporters and interest groups, and don’t contain taxpayer money, so the rules about how they can be used are more lenient).

The new campaign spending rules now mean that campaigns will have specific guidance on how to define expenses in the future. For example, the candidates will now have to choose from descriptions such as “advertising expense,” “polling expense”, and “event expense,” among many others. In addition, the commission is requiring that candidates provide “sufficiently specific” descriptions of expenditures after the categories — a further increase in disclosure.

Reform advocates praised the changes. The rules should make it easier for the public to calculate candidates’ spending priorities — and make it more difficult for candidates to mask the spending of political funds, as some watchdogs have complained.

Having spent a lot of time these past couple of months wading through campaign finance forms for the Houston elections, I’m delighted to hear this. There are still many ways that things can be improved further – changing the nature of the reporting system to include basic validation checks, and requiring stricter standards for disclosure of personal finances, to name two – but stuff like this matters. Kudos to the TEC for making it happen. Coby has more.

Has the TEC grown some teeth?

Well, no. But they do seem to be levying bigger fines, so maybe their gums are a little harder.

By every measure, the agency is issuing more — and larger — fines, the records show.

“There’s been a shift to focus more on enforcement and compliance,” said the commission’s chairman, San Antonio lawyer Ross Fischer.

He and others who know the agency believe a combination of factors are driving the trend, including technological advancements that make it easy for the public access to analyze records they previously couldn’t see. (The commission’s fine collections, it should be noted, go into the state’s general revenue pool, not the agency’s budget).

The commissioners are also receiving many more sworn complaints than they have in years past, especially during election years. In 2000, for example, 93 complaints were filed. Last year there were 388.

[…]

The commission, of course, is operating on rules crafted from laws passed by members of the Legislature — the folks among the most likely to face investigations and fines.

And not all of them think the system works.

State Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, received a $1,000 fine for listing a $25,000 contribution from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, as “B Perry”. He also failed to disclose Perry’s occupation and title.

Both pieces of information are required for large contributors, according to state law, and watchdogs would argue that officials could skirt full disclosure by submitting partially completed filings.

Edwards calls it “nitpicking.”

“They should get the information — the reporting should be thorough — but it doesn’t have to be to the extent that they are doing,” he said of the commission. “The Legislature needs to go through and make sure they’re not going overboard.”

I have no sympathy for Al Edwards, whose basic error seems to be exactly the sort of thing that the TEC should be enforcing, since there’s no good reason to omit that kind of information in most cases, and in this specific instance there’s plenty of motivation to leave it out. Having said that, I will agree that it isn’t easy to get these forms right, and well-intentioned candidates can and do get tripped up by minutia. I marveled during this election about obviously problematic finance reports, and it seems clear to me that the right answer here is a software fix. Imagine a TurboTax-like program for filling out campaign finance reports in a complete and compliant manner, for instance. Even trivial validation checks like not allowing a form to be submitted if a required field is left blank or has an improper value in it would go a long way. This would require legislative action and a funding source, neither of which the Lege is likely to be anxious to do, but I feel that the promise of reducing “nitpicky” violations would have some momentum behind it. I mean seriously, what’s the argument against this?

Anyway. One of the new toys that the Trib has given us is a searchable database of ethics fines, which I’m sure will be popular among the oppo research crowd. Check it out.

Eversole running for re-election

Surprise!

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole announced on Friday that he will run for re-election, potentially pitting him against a term-limited Houston city councilwoman and, perhaps, his own tarnished reputation.

Eversole, 66, who was hit with a $75,000 fine in the summer by the Texas Ethics Commission over campaign spending violations, said he decided to seek a fifth term to complete a number of highway projects and a major park complex in his precinct.

“Well, I enjoy the job, I enjoy getting up in the morning and doing what the job involves,” he said on Friday. “At the end of the day, I’ve got projects that were started that I want to see moved along or completed.”

That sound you hear is Toni Lawrence spitting nails. On the plus side, this has the potential to be an even more entertaining Republican primary than Perry/Hutchison. There will be plenty of material for the oppo researchers. I mean, a little more than a year ago, Eversole was convinced that the FBI was out to get him. Surely we’ll be hearing plenty more about that, and who knows what else besides.

Correction!

Now that everyone has had a chance to look over everyone else’s campaign finance reports, a number of candidates have made some corrections to their reports.

Former City Attorney Gene Locke and City Controller Annise Parker received money from donors who gave to their campaigns during “contractor blackout” periods. City ordinance prohibits donors from making contributions during the time a contract involving them is awarded or for 30 days afterward.

The Locke campaign returned $15,000 and Parker’s $7,900 after both were contacted by the Chronicle this week and last.

[…]

A review of contributions to the Locke, Parker and City Councilman Peter Brown, who also is running for mayor, showed nine donors over the $5,000 limit — five for Locke, two for Parker and and one for Brown.

[…]

Harris County Board of Education Trustee Roy Morales, who also is running for mayor and has raised a fraction of what his opponents have hauled in , did not appear to have violated any donation limits or regulations.

Actually, if you read the Chron profile of Morales, you’d know that his report did contain at least one “minor error”. Which, as noted in the comments, he would still be held accountable for by the TEC if a complaint were to be filed. I’m just saying.

Meanwhile, the story notes some issues with C.O. Bradford’s report that had been blogged about before, such as the complaint with the TEC that was filed against him.

Others have raised questions about Bradford’s report because more than 60 percent of his total of $112,945 was in-kind rather than monetary donations. These included $7,200 in donations for the value of the use of donors’ property for placement of large political signs.

Several political professionals unaffiliated with Bradford’s or his opponents’ campaigns said they had never heard of this being reported as an in-kind contribution. They suggested it was an effort to create the appearance of greater support.

“He wanted to show the bottom-line funds on his report as higher than he had received in cash donations or checks,” said Nancy Sims, a longtime Houston political consultant who now works in public relations and is blogging about the mayor’s race. “He’s stretched a bit to beef those numbers up and make the race look competitive.”

I’d actually argue that the effect was to make the race look less competitive, as Bradford’s initially reported total far exceeded that of Noel Freeman. In any event, Bradford filed several correction affidavits on the 14th. You can see one of them here, which notes the lowered values of the in-kind donations. As far as I can see, however, looking at the updated report that went with it, the totals and individual contributions reported are still the same. I don’t know if the affidavit itself is sufficient, or if a report that reflects those revised amounts should have been filed as well. If it’s the latter, I believe he still has work to do.

And finally, there’s KA Khan and his clearly bogus non-electronic report, in which he swore in an affidavit that he hadn’t raised more than $20K, then reported that he’d raised $34K. He also didn’t account for the many mailers he’d sent by then. What’s up with that?

Khan said he filed the affidavit because he was unable to get a password to file his report electronically from the city secretary’s office on the day it was due. He said the mailing expenses were not reported because he had not been billed for them yet, although the law requires that expenses be reported when they are incurred.

Okay then. I’ll just note again that in the report Khan filed, it says “I swear or affirm that I have not accepted more than $20,000 in political contributions or made more than $20,000 in political expenditures in a calendar year.” I don’t think “my dog ate my password” is an acceptable excuse for not living up to that, but then you never know how the TEC might rule on a complaint, if one ever gets filed against him. I for one am looking forward to Khan’s eight days out report.

UPDATE: Greg adds on about Khan.

Ethics complaint filed against Bradford

I’ve received word via email that an ethics complaint has been filed against At Large #4 candidate C.O. Bradford, alleging violations in his October campaign finance report. The sender included a PDF of the complaint, but I’m not posting it here as it contained a scan of his drivers license. The details of the complaint are as follows:

Respondent has violated §18-38 City of Houston Code of Ordinances by accepting political contributions in excess of the $5,000.00 personal contribution limit from four separate individuals.

Title 15 of the Texas Election Code defines “contribution” as, “a direct or indirect transfer of money, goods, services, or any other thing of value” and “campaign contribution” as “a contribution to a candidate or political committee that is offered or given with the intent that it be used in connection with a campaign for elective office or on a measure. Whether a contribution is made before, during, or after an election does not affect its status as a campaign contribution.”

Respondent violated limitations on campaign contributions set forth by §18-38 City of Houston Code of Ordinances by accepting political contributions totalling $11,000.00 from Wendy Richard, consisting of separate contributions in the amount of $1,500.00 on March 31, 2009, $1,500.00 on April 30, 2009, $1,500.00 on May 31, 2009, $1,500.00 on June 30, 3009, $2,000.00 on July 1, 2009, $1,500.00 on August 1, 2009, and $1,500.00 on September 1, 2009.

Respondent violated limitations on campaign contributions set forth by §18-38 City of Houston Code of Ordinances by accepting political contributions totalling $7,500.00 from T. Piper Media, consisting of separate contributions in the amount of $1,000.00 on July 1, 2009, $3,000.00 on August 1, 2009, and $3,500.00 on September 1, 2009.

Respondent violated limitations on campaign contributions set forth by §18-38 City of Houston Code of Ordinances by accepting political contributions totalling $10,000.00 from Peter Rene, consisting of separate contributions in the amount of $5,000.00 on April 1, 2009 and $5,000.00 on September 24, 2009.

Respondent violated limitations on campaign contributions set forth by §18-38 City of Houston Code of Ordinances by accepting political contributions totalling $6,000.00 from James Evans, consisting of separate contributions in the amount of $3,000.00 on June 30, 2009 and $3,000.00 on September 24, 2009.

Each of the contributions listed above has been reported on campaign finance reports, Form C/OH, submitted by the Respondent to the Secretary of the City of Houston on July 14, 2009 and October 5, 2009 and made available to the general public on the City of Houston website.

We’ll see what happens. The Texas Ethics Commission doesn’t act with anything resembling haste, so who knows when they’ll give a ruling. Coby, who anticipated that someone would file such a complaint, has more.

TPJ files complaint with Ethics Commission against Craddick

Texans for Public Justice has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission against former Speaker Tom Craddick, alleging that he obfuscated campaign donations made to several Democratic supporters of his prior to the 2008 primaries. From their press release (PDF):

Jobs PAC reported that it received $250,000 from Tom Craddick’s campaign committee on January 10, 2008. According to news reports, around that time Craddick campaign employee Christi Craddick also provided Texas Jobs with written instructions to distribute the funds to Democratic Reps. Kevin Bailey, Dawnna Dukes, Kino Flores and Aaron Pena.1 All four incumbents previously supported Republican Speaker Craddick and faced challengers in the 2008 Democratic primary.2 According to its own reports, Jobs PAC wrote three checks of $50,000 apiece to the campaigns of Reps. Bailey, Flores and Pena on January 11, 2008. By its own accounting, at the time Texas Jobs wrote these checks its sole source of funding was the $250,000 that it received the day before from the Craddick campaign. Rep. Dukes, the fourth lawmaker, told the Austin American-Statesman that she rejected an offer to receive $50,000 from Texas Jobs because her opponent already was making her Craddick ties a campaign issue.3

“Tom Craddick wanted to move tens of thousands of dollars to his favorite Democrats without letting voters know,” said Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald. “Hiding the true source of campaign funds is illegal. Craddick could have contributed the money directly and openly. Instead, he used Texas Jobs to launder his money and keep Texans in dark.”

The TPJ filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County Attorney’s office last year when this information first came out. I am not aware of any updates to this case, but I suspect that it went nowhere, else there’d be little reason to take things up with the TEC. We’ll see what happens. More on this can be found here and here.

Eversole sets a record

You da man, Jerry!

Give credit to Jerry Eversole: When he broke the rules, he did it in a big way. The fine levied against the Harris County commissioner this month is the highest in the history of the Texas Ethics Commission.

Eversole’s $75,000 sanction dwarfs the next-highest sanction, a $29,000 penalty slapped on Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht last year for failing to report discounted legal services as a political contribution. No other officeholder has been fined more than $18,000, a TEC spokesman said.

The commission chided Eversole for numerous vague expenditure listings. Designations he used, such as “public relations” and “gifts” and “misc.” — which included no other explanation — “did not adequately describe the categories of goods or services received in exchange for the expenditures,” according to the final Order and Agreed Resolution which was made public Monday.

The commission also said there was “credible evidence” that Eversole violated sections of the election code by using campaign money to pay for personal expenses. Specifically, it cited a $10,000 trip to Florida for him, his wife and two friends. Eversole previously has said the trip was a legitimate use of campaign funds.

The infractions are not criminal violations. Local prosecutors said there are no provisions in law that allow them to go after officeholders who abuse campaign funds in this way. But, as a condition of the settlement with the ethics commission, Eversole had to reimburse his campaign $41,357.10. His fine also had to be paid with personal funds.

If the TEC were truly serious about its job, this record would not stand for long. Be that as it may, the most interesting bit in the story is confirmation from Eversole that he will not resign his office before the end of the term. I presume he’s still planning to not run for re-election, but who knows? Now that this is behind him, maybe he’ll decide it’s still too sweet a gig to leave.

By the way, if you want to know what Eversole spent all that money on but don’t feel like slogging through the TEC settlement (PDF) yourself, fear not. John Coby breaks it down for you, with pictures.

Eversole gets slapped by Ethics Commission

County Commissioner Jerry Eversole gets hit with a $75,000 fine by the Texas Ethics Commission for failure to accurately report expenses on his campaign finance reports.

Eversole said he signed what is known as an “order and agreed resolution” so as to dispose of the state’s review of his finances, which began with a series of stories by television station KTRK. Among the issues raised then were campaign money used to pay for collectible firearms, golf outings and vacation trips.

“I have accepted responsibility for the past errors and used it as an opportunity to completely revamp our campaign finance disclosure practices,” Eversole said in a prepared statement. “I am pleased to have put this TEC inquiry behind me, and am ready to move forward.”

[…]

Eversole also agreed to reimburse his campaign $41,357.10. Former County Judge Robert Eckels, hired by Eversole to scrutinize past campaign finances and serve as his new treasurer, said in the prepared statement that all the items paid for with campaign money were “legal and legitimate,” but that Eversole agreed to pay for them personally in order to remove any doubt.

[…]

Despite not facing serious political opposition, Eversole far outspent the other commissioners in 2006 and 2007, the Chronicle has previously reported. Often the classifications for those expenditures were vague. Among the expenses he has labeled as “public relations” or “misc.” were scores of trips to coffee shops and restaurants; several expenses to gun maker Beretta USA Corp.; and $292 spent at Foot Locker. Also among his “public relations” expenses was a $6,850 trip to Florida, which attracted the attention of the DA’s office.

Eversole said in a 2007 Chronicle story that he had “never looked at one of my campaign reports,” adding that he did not believe his filings had to specify the items purchased with campaign cash. Many expenditures fit under “public relations,” he said, so that’s how his bookkeepers classified them.

Hard to believe Eversole had objected to County Judge Ed Emmett’s modest reforms on the grounds that what the TEC already required was good enough, isn’t it? I mean, clearly he’s the kind of guy who needs this sort of thing spelled out to him in excruciating detail. Maybe if that had been the case all along, his wallet wouldn’t be a bit lighter now.

As we know, Eversole still has other issues that are not yet resolved.

The FBI probe, though unconfirmed by the agency, is reported to center on design work done by prominent architect Leroy Hermes on Eversole’s home in the Heights. Hermes’ firm has been involved with county projects, but both he and Eversole insist the residential work was done without regard to political contracts, but because the two are friends. Eversole said he paid Hermes for his help in designing the house, which was built in 2003.

As Eversole is now reportedly planning to serve out the rest of his term, I suppose he’s not too worried about this right now. If and when something does happen on this front, I daresay it’ll be more unpleasant for him than what the TEC can dish out.

More on Perry’s vetoes

Governor Perry’s veto of SB2468, the “revolving door” restrictions bill for Harris County, has puzzled its sponsor.

In his veto message, Perry said he rejected the ethics bill, authored by Sen. Mario Gallegos, because it addressed lobbying matters and related criminal penalties only in Harris County, not statewide, and thus characterized it unconstitutional.

Gallegos, a Houston Democrat, said he was surprised at the veto because the bill’s language had been revised to address constitutional issues and further because the governor’s office called him around noon Friday saying Perry was going to bless it.

But around 7:15 p.m., Gallegos said, the governor’s office called again and said the attorney general’s office had declared it unconstitutional.

“I was told several people from Harris County called him (the governor) and told him to the veto the bill. It was a good ethics bill,” Gallegos said.

The so-called “revolving door” restriction required former county employees to wait two years before lobbying.

You would think that a basic concept as a constitutional prohibition on criminal penalties that apply in one part of the state but not in other parts would have come up earlier in the process than this. Sen. Gallegos is suggesting that the people who would be affected by the bill’s restrictions managed to convince Perry to maintain the status quo. I have to say, that strikes me as a much more likely explanation than a sudden discovery that the bill was unconstitutional.

Speaking of bills tailored to specific counties, here’s the story on HB770, which became law by default.

Even though a provision allowing a lawmaker’s beach house — and those nearby — to be rebuilt in an exemption from the Texas Open Beaches Act was not vetoed by the governor, the measure is too flawed to be enforceable, the state land commissioner said Friday.

Commissioner Jerry Patterson said the provision won’t pave the way for the rebuilding of Rep. Wayne Christian’s home or any other one on public beaches.

“It will be the policy of the Texas General Land Office that notwithstanding the Christian amendment, no structure will be rebuilt if it will interfere with the public right to access Texas beaches,” said Patterson, who has railed against the provision but said he agreed with Gov. Rick Perry’s decision.

[…]

In a statement Friday, [Rep. Wayne] Christian said, “I am pleased Governor Perry has agreed with those of us in the Texas Legislature to expedite the post-Ike recovery of Texas families and respect their private property rights.

Patterson, who had urged a veto of the bill, said he had changed his thinking and supports Perry’s decision.

“Two weeks ago, that would have disappointed me. Today, I think the governor did the right thing,” Patterson said, adding that the Christian amendment will change nothing.

“Texas beaches will remain as they have always been, open to all Texans, not just a few,” Patterson said.

Too bad, I was kind of hoping Patterson would go rogue. So what happens if Christian starts rebuilding his house? Who’s going to stop him, and how?

One veto I hadn’t noted yesterday was of HB130, which was a pre-kindergarten bill. As with pretty much all of the vetoes here, this one caught supporters by surprise.

“It’s a bad day for public education and for Texas’ youngest and neediest children,” [bill author Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington] said.

House Bill 130 would have put in place new quality standards for pre-kindergarten classes, including teacher training and class size limits. The classes serve children who are homeless or in foster care, have a parent in the military, have limited English-speaking skills or whose families are low-income.

The original bill would have expanded pre-kindergarten classes from half-day to full-day for the children who now qualify for the program. But the initial $623 million price tag proved too much for the Legislature to swallow in a tight budget.

The final bill that cleared the Legislature, while keeping the quality standards, provided $25 million in grant money for districts that already have full-day pre-kindergarten but were slated to lose state funding.

UPDATE: Perry wrote in his veto statement that the money would be better used to expand the number of children served in the existing program.

“Under the funding formula for the existing grant program, $25 million would serve more than 27,000 students over the next biennium, which is 21,000 students more than the estimated 6,800 students that would have been served under the bill’s proposed program – or a 305 percent increase,” Perry wrote.

But Patrick noted that the $25 million does not provide the districts the full amount needed to offer full-day classes, so the districts will still bear significant costs.

Even with the veto, those districts will get the money but the quality standards will not take effect.

One-hundred House members had signed on to the bill, which had the strong backing of House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts.

“More Republicans supported the bill than not,” Patrick said. “Clearly, many Republicans as well as Democrats understand that pre-k education is an investment for which there is a great return.”

Penny-wise and pound-foolish, which is about what you’d expect from our Governor. Other views on the vetoes: from Grits, who agreed with some but as I expected disliked the rejection of HB3148; and from Eye on Williamson.