If his travels are any indication, Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) and former President Obama are practically joined at the hip.
According to expenditures examined by The Texas Monitor, Coleman used campaign funds to pay for 14 trips to see Barack or Michelle Obama.
- Obama’s nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008
- Both of Obama’s inaugurations in 2009 and 2013
- White House Christmas parties in 2011 and 2012
- Meetings at the White House in 2010, 2013 and 2015, a White House health-care event in 2010 and a White House reception in 2014
- Obama’s nomination speech at the DNC in Charlotte in 2012
- Obama’s election night party in Chicago in 2012
- A roundtable discussion with Michelle Obama in 2012
- Obama’s final convention speech at the DNC in Philadelphia in 2016
In an emailed response to The Texas Monitor, Coleman said he is “a proud supporter of President Obama.”
He made four expenditures totaling $7,800 out of his own campaign funds to Obama’s campaign. He also gave a total of $41,000 in 2016 to the Hillary Victory Fund.
Coleman is among the most well-traveled members of the Texas Legislature, using his campaign account to fund $106,094 for him and his staff to travel out of state since 2007. Other destinations have included Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Orlando, Raleigh, San Francisco, Tampa and Vancouver.
In all, Coleman used campaign funds to pay $456,388 for such expenses as travel, cars, Austin apartments and gifts for constituents. He ranked third in the Texas House in The Texas Monitor’s study of such expenses among all state legislators between 2007 and 2016.
Coleman told The Texas Monitor his travel is “due to my work as a member of the DNC’s finance committee, being a board member of the progressive states network, board member of the [Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee], and being on the White House working group for Healthcare related to the creation and implementation of the Affordable Care Act.”
“I also travel to [the National Conference of State Legislatures conference] almost every year, and have paid for staff to attend NCSL as well because of its education value,” he wrote.
Coleman is one of the lawmakers – and he’s far from alone – who rents living quarters in Austin full time although the legislature only meets every other year. His rent for a house has ranged from $1,200 to $1,900 in the past decade.
Coleman said he rents annually because he is chairman of the House Committee on County Affairs and chairman of the Legislative Study Group, which require him to be in Austin often during the interim between sessions.
Like many Texas lawmakers, Coleman puts a good chunk of campaign money toward wheels, just over six figures ($100,276) in his case. His car payments in 2007 were $526 monthly, rising to $763 monthly in 2016. In the past decade, he’s also spent $17,915 on car insurance, $11,339 for repairs and maintenance and $394 on registration fees.
The spirit of Christmas puts Coleman in a giving mood. He has spent $36,800 on Christmas ornaments, other Christmas supplies and shipping costs for constituents in the past decade.
Coleman said he plans to continue that trend.
“Christmas ornaments for supporters has been a long held tradition that will continue,” he wrote.
In 2011, Coleman treated 15 fellow House members to “cobalt blue vases” worth a total of $1,217, and later spent another $1,136 on Waterford Wedgewood crystal or fine china for colleagues.
Coleman, first elected in 1991, has faced two complaints from the Texas Ethics Commission for campaign finance law violations.
In 2008, he was hit with a $9,500 civil fine for a number of violations, which included failing to properly report political expenditures made by credit card on campaign finance reports, improperly reporting political expenditures as reimbursements, failing to properly report political expenditures made from personal funds, and failing to disclose the principal occupation or job title and employer of certain contributors.
In 2010, the ethics commission slapped Coleman with an $800 penalty for some of the same issues. They also alleged that he made expenditures that constituted a conversion of political contributions to a personal use, but dismissed the allegation citing insufficient evidence.
Coleman told The Texas Monitor that in both cases he filed amended reports and paid the fines.
He also had to pay the ethics commission a $500 penalty for filing a late personal financial statement.
Despite the penalties imposed on Coleman, Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, said the ethics commission is mostly toothless when it comes to using campaign funds for personal use.
“The way conversion is defined is not very clear,” he told The Texas Monitor, “and the Texas Ethics Commission is not too eager to dig into the issue.”
And while ethics reform was on Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for the past session, only a watered-down reform package made it to his desk.
“There’s not the political will right now to change these things,” Shelley said.
The top industries giving to Coleman over the past decade are health ($310,105), legal ($118,526) and lobbyists ($69,037). His top donors are Border Health PAC ($82,000), Blackridge ($57,348) and North Texas Leadership PAC ($50,000).
Coleman hasn’t faced much serious competition in his re-election bids, which has aided the growth of his campaign account. He has mostly just faced third-party candidates. In 2016, he went up against Republican Matt Murphy and Green Party candidate Brian Harrison and still captured more than 76 percent of the vote.
Correction: The initial version of this story said that Coleman paid a fine after the Texas Ethics Commission found he had converted campaign funds for personal use. While Coleman was alleged to have done this, the final ruling by the TEC was that he was not guilty of that violation.
Contact Johnny Kampis at [email protected].