Report finds more questionable lawmaker spending

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Texas campaign money

A Dallas television station found that about 40 former Texas lawmakers had some $9 million in leftover donations among them in their campaign accounts, and a portion of the remainder was being used in ways some might find questionable.

The situation bears similarity to a report from The Texas Monitor last year that found current lawmakers were using their hefty war chests to live lavish lifestyles.

WFAA examined Texas Ethics Commission filings of nearly 400 former members of the Texas House and Senate to uncover the numbers. They found the money was used for a variety of purposes. For example:

  • After state Sen. Mario Gallegos, a Democrat from Houston, died in 2012 with $45,000 remaining in his campaign account, members of his staff got salary increases in an effort by his widow to spend the leftover money.
  • Rodney Ellis, another Houston Democrat, still had $2 million in his fund when he left the Texas Legislature, and used about $500,000 of it to buy stock. That’s legal as long as proceeds from the purchase are put back into the campaign account, WFAA pointed out.
  • Former state Rep. Kevin Eltife, a Republican from Tyler, left the legislature with nearly $1 million left in his account and became a University of Texas regent. In 2017, he stayed for three days at the Beverly Hills Hotel in California, spending more than $7,000 on the trip, which was completely legal because UT is a state school and therefore Eltife was conducting state business.

Dave Jones, president of Clean Elections Texas, pointed out that while such spending is legal under Texas law, most citizens would be surprised by how former lawmakers are able to use their campaign money. He noted the only hard-and-fast rule is that those donations can’t be converted to personal use.

“It’s a pretty darned broad definition,” he said.

The Texas Monitor proved that point last year in its series Lifestyles of State Lawmakers, which showed how members of the House and Senate are spending lavish amounts of money for such things as swanky Austin apartments, campaign vehicles (that skew much more toward Mercedes than Hondas) and travel to exotic destinations. These legislators also buy plenty of gifts for their constituents (and voters), such as top-dollar tickets to professional sporting events.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, led the Senate index, thanks largely to the $312,651 she paid in Austin rent over the previous decade, while Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, topped the House, due in part to the $303,641 he spent on gifts between 2007 and 2016.

Dan Weiner, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, told The Texas Monitor that such spending goes to the heart of why critics worry about laws allowing unlimited campaign donations — especially when incumbents are able to build up massive accounts because they don’t face stiff election competition.

“Every jurisdiction in the country struggles with this issue,” Weiner said, “but it’s a bigger issue where there are no contribution limits.”

Gov. Greg Abbott pushed for campaign spending reforms during the past legislative session, and was successful in getting through House Bill 505, which makes it illegal for legislators who become lobbyists to hand over leftover campaign money to their former peers who are still serving as lawmakers.

That law takes effect in January, although critics point out that a former lawmaker could simply stop being a lobbyist to give the money to a friend and then re-register as a lobbyist shortly afterwards to skate around the statute.

Johnny Kampis can be reached at [email protected].

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