Sometimes campaign donations are the gift that keeps on giving.
Donors provide money to candidates, and, in return, those candidates kick some of that money back after they’re elected.
In just the past 10 years, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr, (D-Brownsville) has spent nearly $290,000 in campaign funds on various gifts to constituents and voters. In The Texas Monitor’s examination of campaign fund spending on categories that also include Austin apartments, cars and travel, Lucio ranked third in the Texas Senate, with him having spent $796,488 in the past decade.
His office didn’t reply to an email from The Texas Monitor seeking comment on this report.
Lucio has spent $55,729 on various flags, gavels, resolutions, display boxes and other gifts from the Texas Senate to give to constituents. He’s also made 109 expenditures totaling $25,217 at the Capitol Gift Shop for similar trinkets.
Best Buy has received $7,615 in business from Lucio for gifts, while the longtime lawmaker, having first assumed office in 1991, spent $7,016 on flowers and $6,226 on golfing-related gifts. He also gave gifts worth $10,735 to other legislators between 2007 and 2016.
Lucio has spent almost as much on renting and maintaining his apartment in the Texas capital as he has on gifts, keeping the apartment even in non-legislative years. Since 2007 he’s spent $287,439 on his Austin domicile, with rent that averages $2,024 per month.
That includes the $4,696 he has paid for the upkeep of his Austin residences, and $8,313 for furnishings and appliances.
Lucio has also spent $9,449 on furnishings for his legislative office, including décor, furniture and televisions.
He has used campaign funds to pay for $31,601 in meals in Austin since 2007, the vast majority of them ($29,447) at The Austin Club for “meeting with constituents to discuss legislative issues,” says a descriptor of the expenses.
Back home in Brownsville, Lucio has spent more than $70,000 on dining with constituents, with Campero’s Restaurant receiving the most business with $12,116 spent.
Lucio has also spent more than $200,000 on cars and car expenses during the examined period. In 2008, he purchased a Chevy Suburban for $32,117 with campaign money and then another unspecified vehicle in 2012 for $28,840.
He has spent $114,527 in maintenance and repair of those vehicles and another $18,529 in insurance. Satellite radio and navigation systems add another $4,223 to his car tab since 2007.
Travel for Lucio using campaign funds isn’t nearly an extravagant a total (about $20,000) as it is for other lawmakers on The Texas Monitor’s list, but he has been to some pretty exotic locales using campaign funds to pay for at least a portion of the trips.
That includes a 2010 trip to Istanbul on a goodwill and fact-finding mission, two trips to Panama City in 2013 and 2016 to learn how the Panama Canal expansion could affect Texas, a 2015 visit to Rome and 2016 visit to Vienna for International Catholic Legislators Network meetings and an unspecified trip to Germany in 2016.
Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), who is fifth on The Texas Monitor’s campaign-spending list, also traveled on a fact-finding mission to Panama in 2016, spending $2,547 for flights and another $4,397 for food and lodging at Trump Ocean Club. His spokesman, Sydni Mitchell, told The Texas Monitor that Nichols used campaign funds after checking with the Texas Ethics Commission first to make sure it was a legitimate use of such money.
Lucio has also traveled to Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Phoenix and Seattle using campaign money to pay for parts of the trips.
Lucio has gotten just over $2.5 million in campaign contributions in the past decade although he’s faced very little election competition — only a Democratic primary spar in 2016 against O. Rodriguez Haro III, and that spar was more of a pillow fight as Lucio captured 84 percent of the vote. That has left plenty of money for the types of expenditures listed in this report.
The health and medical ($381,118), building and construction ($253,250) and legal ($222,951) industries are the top contributors to Lucio’s campaign. The top donors are Border Health PAC ($262,500), Perry, Bob & Doylene ($206,000) and Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC ($111,667).
Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, told The Texas Monitor there is a systemic nature among legislators in the capital that encourages these types of expenditures.
“Lawmakers get up here to Austin and start to fall into another culture where these expenses are normalized,” he said.
Shelley borrowed the old quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis about how sunlight is the best disinfectant.
“These issues need to be brought out into the open,” he said. “The average voter doesn’t realize how this money is being spent.”
Contact Johnny Kampis at [email protected].