Campaign funds: The gift that keeps on giving

If you’re thinking of opening a new business in Austin, forget flowers.

The market is pretty sewn up, bound by the habits of state legislators, who use money from campaign funds that often reach over $1 million. The lawmakers have frequented a selection of Austin florists around 600 times in the past decade, buying flowers as gifts, memorials and tokens of appreciation.

Take the four-figure buys by state Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), which would surely carry a room, like his $7,433 layout in January 2009.

Craddick leads the legislature in flower buys, plunking down $64,000 in campaign cash since 2007, over twice the $24,000 of runner up, House Speaker Joe Straus.

Collectively, lawmakers have spent $3.3 million in campaign money on gifts in the past ten years. Sports and music tickets, flags, framed photos and calendars are among the perennial choices in the political process of gifting, a key part of currying favor with constituents and in some cases, each other.

The Texas Monitor reviewed the campaign spending of current lawmakers with the fattest coffers, as well as reports from some higher profile legislators.

The review finds that many elected officials ring up bills for gifts using other people’s money, doling out books and event tickets to constituents.

The statute under which the overall spending is done has barely been altered for three decades.

The $29,823 that state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has spent with online retailer Amazon since 2007 is aimed at kids, she explained.

“Every kid that comes into my office can take a book off two shelves I keep there,” said Zaffirini, who spent $248,928 on gifts over the past ten years, more than any other lawmaker. She also buys English-Spanish dictionaries to hand out when she visits schools, she said.

“If I go to a school and there are 700 students, every one gets one.”

The beneficiaries of lawmaker largesse goes beyond kindly gestures, though, and into the big league realm of sports, where state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) says he hands out tickets to his constituents to see the Houston teams.

In August he plunked down $7,000 of donor money for tickets to the Astros, when the cellar-dwelling Oakland Athletics were in town. It was his second-largest outlay yet — but still couldn’t top the July 2013 buy of $8,580 for Houston Rockets seats. Overall, Whitmire has spent $162,212 on sports tickets since 2011.

Whitmire did not return an email seeking comment.

In 2008, a California man, Dave Palmer, filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission alleging improper spending by Whitmire and several other legislators.

Whitmire told the Houston Chronicle that he buys four season tickets for Astros and Texans games and two season tickets for the Rockets from his campaign fund.

“It’s a total non-issue by some character out in California, so I don’t care what he thinks,” Whitmire told the Chronicle. He added that he sometimes gives tickets to police and fire fighters, who belong to unions that support his campaigns.

Whitmire was found by the commission to be in compliance with the law.

In the last quarter of 2016, police and fire fighter unions put $27,500 in his campaign fund. Whitmire’s next election for office is 2018.

Nestled among the complaint were allegations of improper constituent gifts, including a purchase in the amount of $554 at Tiffany & Co.

It turns out, though, that constituents are not the only recipients of gifts from lawmakers — the elected officials also provide gifts to each other with their donor cash.

State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), who was recently indicted on corruption-related charges, leads the pack in handouts, with over $12,000 worth of gifts to his colleagues. Included in that is a $5,700 payment to former chief-of-staff Liz Campos in 2009 for labor and “reimbursement for end of session gifts for senators.” The gifts are not specified.

In 2015, Uresti paid $2,906, again for “gifts for senators” at a Things Remembered outlet in San Antonio, which specializes in personalized gifts.

Wine baskets, baby gifts, golf accessories, glassware and a host of unnamed treasures are handed over each year by state representatives and senators. The goods come from Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton, Last Call, and Burberry as well as liquor stores and golf shops.

Overall, $179,350 in gifts have been exchanged among lawmakers, all paid for with campaign fund money. Some of the spenders cite on their expenditure forms the exact rule that allows them to give to their colleagues, House Rule 14, section 7.

“They are making a judgment for themselves” when they spend their campaign funds on gifts, said University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray. “They write their own internal rules….and they have gotten very sophisticated at bending the rules.”

Gifts, Murray said, are one more way of making the system work for the lawmakers.

“As long as they don’t say anything, it’s legal. These guys are sophisticated, it’s a wink-wink, nod-nod, ‘we’ll help each other.’”

The House rule allows for gifts up to $75 to each other, but disclosure requirements don’t break down the ultimate destination of a gift.

Using that math, for example, when state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Denton) hit the exclusive jeweler Ross-Simons, an East Coast operator based in Rhode Island, she bought gifts for up to 11 lawmakers for $839 twice in 2013.

State Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), in 2009 laid out $2,884 of donor cash for “legislative colleague gifts” at Rewards, which makes designer jewelry and custom belt buckles.

And finally, there is the Texas Capitol Gift Shop, located on a lower floor of the state Capitol amidst a series of legislative conference rooms. Its convenience makes it a go-to for legislators spending on gifts, despite a stock of fairly rote items like Alamo paperweights, Lone Star cufflinks, and Austin bat pillows. The shop takes in a yearly average of $51,710 from lawmakers.

The place is run by the State Preservation Board’s retail division, which also operates retail for the capitol itself, and the Bullock State History Museum.

This year, the board is asking for more budget money, including some help with an apparently lagging gift shop.

“The agency’s capitol and museum retail stores are being required to reassess sales and marketing paradigms in order to remain productive and profitable,” reads the request to lawmakers for an additional $1.4 million for FY 2017/2018.

It’s unlikely the system will ever see reform, said Murray, the UH professor.

“Even a scandal would just be an individual member, where they could say ‘yes, we had a bad apple,” Murray said. “There’s not a system for a citizen initiative to go around them, and the governors aren’t interested in that, they don’t want to target members. So newspapers every now and then can do something, but, no, there’s not a real fix for it.”

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or [email protected]

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Steve is a veteran journalist, who has previously worked at the Dallas Morning News and the Washington Times, as well as Texas Watchdog. His work has appeared in the Houston Press, Miami New Times, People Magazine, and High Times. He also travels the country writing true crime books. His work has won awards in national, regional, and state contests.