Campaign coffers fund lavish lifestyles

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Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of Texas Monitor investigations into the way campaign funds are used to pad the lifestyles of public officials in Texas.

When you drive a BMW, the repair bills can be a monster once the warranty is over.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, does not take that charge himself. He dips into his campaign funds, records show. Since 2007 the nine-term incumbent spent $12,759 at Advantage BMW in Houston’s Midtown for service on the car he leases. His campaign coffers have paid for $117,851 on BMW leases over the last decade.

Sen. Whitmire, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, is hardly alone in terms of high-end spending of campaign money.

Along with luxury cars, lawmakers lease private planes, enjoy $3,000-a-month high-rise apartments and take in the best in entertainment with the priciest seats, all paid for by their benefactors. If they are found to have violated the state’s loose campaign spending parameters, they can be fined, a levy that can be paid out of – wait for it – their campaign account.

The actions are legal, approved by the very people doing the spending.

The Texas Monitor reviewed the campaign spending of current lawmakers with the fattest coffers, as well as reports from some higher-profile legislators past and present, discovering some elected officials live a lifestyle high above that of their constituents, thanks to the donations from both the wealthy class of Texans as well as the rank and file.

The statute under which the spending is done has barely been altered for three decades. And when it has, it has been loosened to allow exceptions for payment of rent and “reasonable” household expenses for out-of-town lawmakers’ accommodations in Austin.

The housing element is the only expense explicitly addressed in the statute.

Spending of campaign finances, though, remains “the largest generator of complaints we have,” according to a spokesman at the Texas Ethics Commission.

The commission, though, has also played a role in the spending.

It has ruled that former officeholders can use campaign funds to sue an enemy for defamation. Lawmakers can spend their funds on travel for spouses attending the opening day of the session. They can pay their HOA fees with campaign cash, as long as they are from outside Austin and the residence is used for “political purposes.”

Donors are paying for a favor, cloaked as a service. The self-interest has a price, so when the legislator voting for those favors is ensconced in a ritzy condo or enjoying a luxe ride, courtesy of that donor, it presents a conflict that some watchdog groups claim makes politics dirty.

“Campaign funds are designed to pay the expenses of running a campaign,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen. “There’s a big difference between running a campaign and running around town treating buddies to expensive dinners. People donate that money for a campaign, not for living large.”

State lawmakers are often abetted by softened news accounts of their spending, which usually preface any critique noting the “meager pay” of the public servants. Legislators are paid $7,200 a year plus a $190 per diem during session.

Republican state Sen. Kel Seliger’s district takes in 37 counties of West Texas. It’s a long drive from his Amarillo home to the Capitol, but Seliger, a private pilot, opts to fly. He pays himself, via the company he owns, Frog Air, to get him around, spending a total of $18,000 since 2012. That includes numerous flights to Midland, a 239-mile drive. In 2013, the trip cost him $2,566. A commercial flight today costs around $400.

Seliger did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Private airplanes have traditionally been a difficult thing to police, said Austin lawyer Ed Shack, who in 1991 helped develop the rules and procedures for the Texas Ethics Commission. The costs of a flight vary wildly, and the activity can even save money when done right.

But directing an expenditure to a self-owned company is governed strictly; you cannot bill for more than cost.

Shack is uncharacteristically unperturbed about campaign fund spending. It’s not, he noted, as if lawmakers are taking money from taxpayers.

“I don’t see it as being abused,” he said. “You can say, ‘Well, I think you should be leasing a Toyota Corolla rather than a BMW.’ I know it bothers some people. But the rules, as they are, seem to be well enforced.”

Those rules are unlikely to be changed.

There are costs that are necessary, said former state Rep. Jerry Madden, who in 1999 filed a bill seeking to curtail some spending liberties.

The Dallas-area Republican was beseeched by the ethics lobby to carry the measure, which died in committee.

“You do have to consider where you draw the line on that spending,” Madden said. “I had an opponent one time who was mad because I bought suits from my campaign fund. But if you are serving in the legislature and you are a farmer, then you have to consider what you usually wear versus what you don’t. I wasn’t terribly upset by most of the uses.”

At the least, the extravagant style in which the lawmakers travel is enabled by the loose spending rules.

For an energy conference in Calgary, Alberta in 2014, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, spent $2,624 on a United Airlines ticket and $780 for a car rental while staying at the Fairmont Palliser, a luxury hotel downtown. At the time, Geren’s committee assignments included calendars, house administration, licensing and administrative procedures, state affairs and transportation funding.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, likes upscale hotels – he’s graced the Galt House, in Louisville, Ky., the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the W in Chicago.

So does Sen. Larry Taylor. The Kingswood Republican paid $548 for a night at the Westin Washington National Harbor while attending the Texas Republican Representatives Campaign Committee in 2010. He spent another $469 for a night at the Palmer House in Chicago in 2013.

Many lawmakers tap campaign funds for wheeled transport.

Democratic state Rep. Richard Raymond’s district is in Laredo, but he has paid $34,000 to College Station Ford for a campaign vehicle.

State Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, favors rentals. He’s spent $19,129 on 47 rentals since 2010 with the Avis car rental office 12 miles from his district office on Padre Island. He’s also a supporter of the Corpus Christi minor league team, treating constituents to $11,616 in tickets and food from his campaign fund since 2011.

The spending is not a metric for bad habits or malfeasance, noted Shack. But it can tell voters something.

“The spending reflects values and what they think is important,” he said.

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