Two modest campaign finance reform suggestions

What to do about this?

Jack Abercia

As indicted ex-constable Jack Abercia fights federal corruption and bribery charges brought against him last month, a lack of money for his legal defense isn’t one of his problems.

The former Precinct 1 Harris County constable has salted away approximately $423,000 in campaign contributions, according to campaign finance reports.

And while Abercia’s political war chest is hefty, it’s hardly the largest held by Harris County officials.

Longtime Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee is sitting on $3 million, and fellow commissioner Steve Radack reported $774,000, according to recent campaign finance reports. Abercia’s campaign funds exceeded the $302,000 reported by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Abercia, 78, said in December he would not seek re-election, explaining he was battling cancer and resigned after his indictment last month. He did not return calls for comment.

Abercia’s defense attorney, Rusty Hardin, said his client has every right to keep campaign funds he’s amassed over the years and use them for his legal defense if he chooses.

Legally speaking, he’s correct. Pretty much every officeholder that has ever been arrested or investigated has spent campaign money on their defense. It always makes me a little squeamish, but as donors can ask for their contributions back, I don’t see what there is to be done.

What interests me more is the totals that Abercia and so many others are able to accumulate. If you look at Abercia’s January finance report, you will see that he only took in $2200 for the last six-month period. He also spent over $12,000, so he entered that period with over $430K. Not that you’d have known it from his form, since he didn’t list a cash on hand balance. That’s a pretty impressive amount for a low-profile office, more so when you realize that he had primary challengers in 2008 and 2004. Though he probably didn’t spend too much in either of those elections – the story suggests his opponents were not serious, and as a resident of Precinct 1, I can say that I don’t recall any campaign activity. By contrast, there was a contested Justice of the Peace primary in Precinct 1 in 2008, and it generated plenty of activity. I didn’t even remember that Abercia had opponents till I looked it up on the County Clerk website.

The thing about these officeholders in safe districts who amass large campaign war chests is that they do so – or so they say – to be prepared for electoral challenges. I can’t argue with the logic, but it sets up a situation where nobody substantial actually does challenge them, because they can’t compete financially. While I’m generally happy about that for most of our incumbents, that’s not a good thing for democracy. What I would propose to do about this is require that every officeholder spend a certain amount of money each cycle, to prevent them from building up too big a pile. Perhaps a rule dictating that, I don’t know, 75% of all contributions given in a cycle must be spent by the start of the next cycle. You could still build up a big balance over time, but it would take longer. The amount and the mechanism are not set in my mind, but the basic idea is to lower the barriers to entry in a given race.

My other suggestion doesn’t directly address this but does come back to something that’s bugged me for awhile. I noted recently that former Rep. Jim Turner, who was last elected to Congress in 2002, still has over a million dollars in his campaign finance account. It’s my understanding that unused campaign contributions are supposed to be disposed of within some number of years, but I don’t think anyone takes that very seriously. I would mandate that any funds that remain in a campaign account two years after the last election in which someone was a candidate are automatically forfeited. The cash could then be used to fund better and more comprehensive enforcement of campaign finance laws.

I realize this is much easier said than done, and would require laws to be changed at both the state and federal level. I don’t care about the details, I’m just expressing a vision here. What do you think?

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One Response to Two modest campaign finance reform suggestions

  1. Brad M. says:


    Very good suggestions.

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