Sen. Jane Nelson pays top dollar for rent for her time in Austin.
Since 2015, the Flower Mound Republican has been paying $5,000 a month in rent to GRTW LLC, with the funds to pay the bill coming out of her campaign coffers.
Many of Nelson’s peers in the legislature use campaign funds to pay for their Austin domiciles, but not with a bill quite this hefty: $312,651 overall in the past 10 years.
And Nelson doesn’t pay rent to just anybody. GRTW was founded by a prominent Austin name: Karen Rove, records show. She’s a lobbyist and the wife of Karl Rove, the former Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush.
Due to her spending on Austin living, out-of-state travel, gifts to constituents, and other expenses, Nelson tops The Texas Monitor’s list of campaign spenders in the Texas Senate between the years 2007 and 2016.
Her office didn’t return a call from The Texas Monitor seeking comment on the report.
While Nelson hasn’t spent as many campaign funds on trips as some others on The Texas Monitor’s Top 5 list in the House and Senate — $54,742 for Nelson — she has traveled to some pretty exotic locales, often paying for her husband to come along.
Destinations have included Maui, Kauai, Panama, Shanghai, Palm Springs, Coral Gables, Orlando, New Orleans, and Las Vegas.
Nelson has used $23,537 to help pay for several trips to Hawaii. She and her husband attended the Pacific Research Foundation Conference there in 2008 and she returned to it in 2010. She headed to Maui for the Independent Voter Project Conference in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Nelson paid for $6,832 in airfare to American Airlines for a trip to Shanghai in 2012. The description for the trip said she served as “Chair of Fort Worth Sister Cities International delegation.”
In 2016, she was among a group of Texas lawmakers who went to Panama to see how a Panama Canal expansion would affect Texas ports. Her husband and a staffer also went, and Nelson expensed $7,581 for the trip.
Dan Weiner, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said you rarely see lawmakers taking trips to such less-than-exciting locales at Topeka or Omaha with campaign funds.
“The expensive trips always raise red flags,” Weiner told The Texas Monitor. “It’s just a core area where you see a lot of money being spent and you wonder if it’s campaign related.”
Nelson also uses campaign funds to shower her staff with gifts.
Descriptions of purchases show that she spent $88,184 between 2007 and 2016 for American Express gift cards for staff members and interns. She has also spent an additional $27,500-plus for other gifts for staff members and volunteers, including $2,525 for Walmart gift cards during the 2012 Christmas season.
Nelson has used campaign money to pay for around $33,000 in meals in Austin restaurants. That includes $4,897 for dues and meals at Austin Club. (She is also a member of the Fort Worth Club, paying that organization $7,517 for dues and meals.)
She has held eight staff appreciation dinners in which she spent four figures, including a $2,672 tab at Gloria’s Restaurant.
Unlike many of her peers who use campaign funds to lease or buy cars they use year-round, Nelson only leases cars with that money during the legislative session, spending less than $18,000 in total on cars and car expenses since 2007.
Nelson has spent $33,165 in campaign money on computers and other electronics — likely for her offices — at Apple Store, Best Buy, Circuit City and Dell since 2007.
In 2007, the Texas Ethics Commission found that Nelson failed to properly report expenditures made to reimburse staff members. Nelson was also alleged to have improperly reimbursed political expenditures made from personal funds, but the reports examined didn’t fall within the commission’s three-year statute of limitations. Nelson paid a $1,500 civil penalty after the commission’s findings.
Nelson was first elected to her seat in 1993 and has faced scant competition since. She’s never had Republican primary opposition since her election and has faced a Democrat only in 2006. Nelson’s main opposition has been from the Libertarian Party, races in which she has handily won.
Despite the breezy elections, Nelson has still managed to raise nearly $4.2 million in political contributions since 2007. Her top contributors during that time frame are TEXPAC ($125,000), TREPAC ($105,000), Sue Bancroft ($75,000), and Border Health PAC ($75,000).
By industry, her top contributors are health (at least $900,000), legal (at least $170,000), and banking (at least $133,000).
Nelson has received nearly 70 percent ($2.9 million) of her total contributions from entities rather than individuals — a common occurrence in the Texas Legislature, thanks to the state’s lack of contribution limits.
Weiner said that’s why most states have contribution limits, to minimize the possibility of influence. He noted, for example, that if a donor bought something for a politician — a nice car or, say, a trip to the Bahamas — in exchange for governmental favors that would be considered a bribe.
“We worry if [the donations] are just being dressed up as campaign contributions,” he told The Texas Monitor.
Contact Johnny Kampis at [email protected].
Correction: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Sen. Nelson’s place of residence while in Austin was the Austonian high rise on 200 Congress St. We regret the error. The Texas Monitor prizes accuracy in its reporting and welcomes information about errors or omissions that warrant correction.