House big spender #5: Rene Oliveira

From his campaign coffers to his valued associates, Rep. Rene Oliveira likes to keep the alcohol flowing.

An examination of campaign fund expenditure by The Texas Monitor shows that the Democrat from Brownsville spent at least $16,105 at liquor stories between Jan. 1, 2007 and Dec. 31, 2016, with descriptions that include “beverages for capitol office” and “beverages for district office for constituents.”

Those expenditures, which include $6,228.33 at Jones Liquor and $5,730.54 at Ben’s Liquor, both in Brownsville, are part of a total of more than $250,000 Oliveira has spent out of his campaign funds over the past decade on extravagant living for himself and gifts for his constituents.

The Texas Monitor examined the campaign expenditure reports of each member of the state’s House and Senate, looking for expenses for such items as exotic travel, fancy Austin accommodations, car leases and swanky gifts for people in their districts. Oliveira’s tally ranked him fifth in the Texas House of Representatives during the past decade.

His office did not return a request from The Texas Monitor for comment.

Oliveira’s greatest expense over that time span was for car leases. He has spent more than $66,000 leasing vehicles since 2007, with a monthly lease payment of $570.09 in 2016. Oliveira may have leased at least five different cars in the past 10 years, based on the different payees who appear on the reports, as well as expenses listed as down payments or turn-in fees.

Oliveira also reports tens of thousands of dollars in vehicle-related expenses, including nearly $23,000 for car insurance, $5,677 for maintenance and repairs, $690 for navigation services and satellite radio, $431 for car washes and $375 for vehicle registration fees.

The fifth-longest serving member of the House, having been elected to the body in 1981, Oliveira also spent nearly $90,000 for meals and accommodations in Austin since 2007. Expenses show that Oliveira rents an apartment at AMLI Downtown at 201 Lavaca St. in Austin for $1,456 a month, and has spent nearly $10,500 on furniture, linens and other supplies for his apartment.

Oliveira is really just keeping up with the Joneses in this case, the Joneses being fellow lawmakers who often rent lavish apartments in Austin although they only have to be there for 140 days, plus assorted committee meetings and other duties, every other year.

When it comes to Austin housing, Oliveira’s rent is closer to the median for the city and he’s more frugal than some other lawmakers, such as Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) who The Texas Monitor reported paid $3,160 per month during the past legislative session to stay at Gables Park Tower.

Most of Oliveira’s Austin expenses pertain to dining around the city’s downtown. He has spent more than $65,000 at local restaurants and bars, including $10,869.94 at Eddie V’s and $6,701.17 at Perry’s Steakhouse. The largest single dining expenditure, $697.28 at Eddie V’s, was listed as “food and drink for constituents while at meeting to discuss officeholder issues.”

Oliveira has showered gifts on constituents in other ways. He regularly hands out graduating certificates to high school graduates in his district, spending $4,775 on these since 2007. As these students reach voting age, the legislator lauds their studious accomplishments.

Staff and supporters got $1,728.10 in gifts purchased at Nordstrom in 2015, and Oliveira has spent nearly $7,000 on gifts from Lone Star Legacies in the past 10 years, including $1,482.07 in 2011 for “end of session gifts.”

Back home in Brownsville, Oliveira has treated his constituents and associates to plenty of campaign-funded meals. Cobbleheads Bar & Grill tops the list, with $41,609.02 spent on 531 occasions. Other Brownsville restaurants where Oliveira has paid for meals include Madeira ($13,281.81) and Toscafino’s ($13,134.35.)

Oliveira has also taken a few nice trips on the campaign fund’s dime, including a trip to the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that cost $5,172 (including $2,824 for the hotel room) and President Obama’s first inauguration, in which the $1,168 airfare to Washington, D.C. was picked up by the campaign.

Oliveira has had plenty of extra campaign money for such expenses thanks at least in part to non-contentious elections. In fact, he hasn’t had a General Election opponent since 1996. He has also handily won the Democratic primaries in recent years – 68 percent to 32 percent over Don DeLeon in 2016 and 63 percent to 37 percent over Alex Dominguez in 2012. He had no primary opposition in 2014.

Oliveira’s contributions skew pretty heavily toward groups such as political action committees, law firms and corporations and away from individual donors. Individuals have made 323 contributions for a total of just under $280,000, or less than 18 percent of Oliveira’s total contributions. Larger entities have made 1,096 contributions for a total of nearly $1.29 million, or more than 82 percent of his total.

Edwin Bender, executive director of the Institute on Money in State Politics, told The Texas Monitor that groups tend to expect access with their money, so there are more strings attached to those donations.

“Those totals are indicative of someone who’s going to be paying attention to those 1,100 donors,” Bender said of Oliveira’s contributions.

Bender said Texas’ lack of contribution limits incentivizes candidates to go first to the people with the most money. This results in fewer total donors and generally less competitive races.

“They’re going to the big check writers and not focusing on the individuals,” he said.

Contact Johnny Kampis at [email protected].