State Rep. Ron Reynolds accomplished his goal of getting out of jail before the beginning of the 86th session of the Texas Legislature, but he hasn’t put all of his legal problems behind him: He still owes the state tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid ethics fines.
Data from the Texas Ethics Commission shows the Fort Bend Democrat owes $52,500 in fines for failing to file timely personal finance statements required for all candidates. Reynolds was convicted of five counts of barratry — illegal solicitation of law clients — in 2015. Reynolds appealed and ultimately lost in 2018 and was ordered to serve a year in jail. He only served four months, however, because of credit for good behavior.
Reynolds didn’t return a call from The Texas Monitor seeking comment.
Reynolds is one of Texas’ worst offenders in terms of unpaid ethics fines, but he’s far from alone in thumbing his nose at the TEC. As of the most recent updating on Feb. 4, the agency’s delinquent filer list shows that 327 Texas officeholders and political candidates owe more than $1.3 million in fines for being lax on those financial statements.
A Texas Monitor examination of the list shows that 18 politicians owe at least $20,000 each. The worst offenders below Reynolds are gubernatorial candidate Star Locke from Port Aransas ($33,500), district judge candidate Joe Foster, Jr. from Alpine ($30,500), House candidate Jesus Mendoza from Lewisville ($22,500) and Senate candidate Christopher Christal from San Antonio ($22,500). Other than Reynolds, none of those candidates won their races.
The list keeps getting longer. A Texas Monitor report last March noted the delinquent list at that time contained the names of about 260 people who owed $1.1 million in fines.
Together, personal finance disclosure statements and campaign finance reports show how candidates earn their income, who funds their campaigns, and how money from those campaigns is spent.
Christal found out the hard way that having raised no money for his campaign didn’t absolve him of the requirement to file campaign finance reports. On the Go Fund Me page he created to raise money to help pay his fines, he said that he quit the 2012 race for the Texas Senate District 26 seat and only learned of his $25,000 fine a year later.
“I thought I could clear this up with a phone call since it was for campaign finance reports and I raised NO MONEY,” he wrote. “After my first conversation, I realized it was a BIG deal.”
Christal said on the webpage that his application for a mortgage loan was rejected due to the ethics judgment. He argued that “with never having raised any money, the judgment is hardly fair.”
According to the page, Christal made some payments against what he owed in fines. However, he hasn’t updated the effort in more than four years and his fine still stands at $22,500. He didn’t return a call from The Texas Monitor seeking comment.
Daniel Stevens, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based ethics watchdog Campaign for Accountability, said the Texas Ethics Commission needs to pursue candidates and officeholders who don’t pay their fines.
“I find it really frustrating to see this. Texas needs a better regime to enforce these fines,” he said.
Texas law directs the ethics commission to pursue enforcement of the fines for failing to file required disclosure forms. The position of enforcement director was not created until 2015, KXAN-TV in Austin found. The station also reported that the AG’s office collected only $300,000 of $1.2 million owed between 2013 and 2017.
TEC chairman Steve Wolens told KXAN that due to holes in recordkeeping between 2005 and 2013 it’s impossible to determine which ethics offenders the commission should have referred to prosecutors. He was named to the commission in 2016.
“We can’t figure it out,” he said.
TEC general counsel Ian Steusloff told The Texas Monitor that the commission forwards names of ethics offenders to the attorney general for action when the fines owed “get to a certain threshold.” He couldn’t recall the exact threshold during the interview.
Steusloff said some fines are difficult to collect because former candidates have moved to new addresses or died. In the latter case, he said, the AG’s office tries to collect the money from that person’s estate.
Texas law sets the amount of the fines, from $500 once a report is late to $10,000 when it’s 40 days late or more.
Once a report is 30 days late, the commission is required to send a warning of liability to the candidate. Steusloff said the majority of candidates file their statements and pay their fines once they receive the letter, which notes the fine amount and the possible referral to prosecuting attorneys. Prosecution is handled on the local level.
“I don’t know how many have been prosecuted, but we do refer filers at a certain point,” he said.
Stevens, the Campaign for Accountability director, said that while he hasn’t studied the lists of ethics violators in every state, the Texas ledger is by far the worst he’s examined.
“I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else in terms of the number of delinquent filers,” he said. “This seems pretty egregious.”
Stevens added that it’s important that voters be able to examine campaign finance reports to see who is donating money to the office-seekers. That level of transparency is key for good government, he argues.
“If there’s no enforcement, people can’t see who is financing these campaigns,” Stevens said.
Texas law doesn’t prevent people on the delinquent filer list from running for election again – or from holding office, as the presence of Reynolds and other serving officials on the list attests.
State Rep. Celia Israel, D-El Paso, expressed interest last year in introducing a bill that could ban such debtors from running for office until they were paid up, but she told KXAN she doesn’t plan to file such legislation this year.
Johnny Kampis can be reached at [email protected].