Senate big spender #4: John Whitmire

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Texas Senator John Whitmire is such a supporter of Texas’ sports teams with his campaign funds they ought to give him an honorary gold-colored, oversized “#1 Fan” foam finger. 

In the past decade, the Democrat from Houston has spent at least $286,383 on tickets and expenses to attend games of hometown teams, the Houston Texans ($108,815), Houston Rockets ($94,809), Houston Astros ($77,761) and others. The expenditures are listed as “constituent entertainment,” meaning Whitmire is sharing the ticket love with voters and campaign supporters. 

He’s also traveled out of state to support Texas sports. That includes a trip to Pasadena, California, in 2009 to watch the University of Texas lose to the University of Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. It also features a jaunt to Cooperstown, New York, in 2015 to attend the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies that included the enshrinement of former Houston Astros second baseman, Craig Biggio. 

Nine expenditures totaling $1,687 went for golf fees at Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston while Sports Illustrated and Men’s Health are among the magazines he’s subscribed to using campaign funds. 

The sports fanatic has faced some heat — not from a fastball, but from the Texas Ethics Commission — for some of these expenses after California resident Dave Palmer filed a complaint against him and other Texas lawmakers that alleged improper spending. 

The complaint against Whitmire alleged he illegally used campaign funds for personal use for some of those ticket purchases. The ethics commission didn’t find sufficient evidence that Whitmire broke the rules on the ticket purchases, but did fine him $3,400 on Dec. 2, 2009, ruling that he didn’t appropriately include employer and occupation information for his contributors. 

In testimony before the commission, Whitmire said, “In the year 2000, I began purchasing season tickets to the three professional sporting teams to increase political visibility and to support the arenas I had passed legislation to help construct. I gave the tickets to charity auctions, supporters and contributors, and constituents.” 

He had strong words for Palmer in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. 

“It’s a total non-issue by some character out in California, so I don’t care what he thinks,” Whitmire told the publication of the disabled veteran who filed the complaint. 

The senator mentioned to the Chronicle that police officers and firefighters are among those supporters who receive those tickets. The Texas Monitor recently pointed out that police and fire unions are among Whitmire’s biggest supporters, adding $27,500 to his campaign fund in the last quarter of 2016. 

The extravagant expenses raise questions about how and for what reason lawmakers like Whitmire spend their campaign funds. 

The Texas Monitor studied such expenses between 2007 and 2016 to determine which state lawmakers are using the most of that money for such niceties that include high-dollar Austin apartments and cars with high sticker prices. Whitmire spent a total of about $560,000 in campaign funds on such categories in the past decade, ranking him fourth among his peers in the Texas Senate. 

Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, told The Texas Monitor that “politicians are what they eat.” 

“Through these heavy campaign expenditures on housing, travel, food and drinks our state officials become one with the business lobby interests that bankroll their campaigns,” he said. 

Wheat noted that tighter laws could reduce campaign lifestyle expenditures, “but our entitled lawmakers oppose self-regulation.” 

“This system works wonderfully for the politicians and their fawning lobby. Does anyone else really count?” 

In just the past 10 years, Whitmire has made at least 26 trips to at least 17 states, the District of Columbia and Canada that were paid for using campaign funds. 

The majority of the 26 trips were to attend various conferences hosted by such groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council, Southern Legislative Conference and National Conference of State Legislatures (although some out-of-state travel expenses are listed vaguely as “legislative business.”) These sorts of events are common, and provide lawmakers with both the opportunity to learn what’s going on in other parts of the country and to take a nice, relaxing family vacation. 

Whitmire took a trip to Honolulu and Maui in 2007 to speak at a conference hosted by the Pacific Policy Research Foundation. Whitmire’s campaign coughed up $2,809 for the trip. 

In all, Whitmire used nearly $60,000 in campaign funds for such trips between 2007 and 2016, the period examined by The Texas Monitor for this series. 

He certainly doesn’t slum it when it comes to wheels, choosing to lease a BMW each year over the past decade for a total of more than $100,000 over that period. Repairs and parts totaling $39,149, satellite radio subscriptions of $2,165 and nearly $500 in registration fees bring his total car expenses over a total of $142,800. 

Many lawmakers use campaign funds to rent Austin apartments — often each year even though the legislature only meets biennially — but Whitmire already has an Austin condo. He used $2,235 in campaign money to make repairs to that domicile between 2007 and 2016. 

He spent $33,229 on dining in Austin during that time frame, which includes pricey tabs to treat other senators at end-of-session dinners at Moonshine Restaurant ($3,275 on May 25, 2007; $2,020 on May 27, 2011 and $1,198 on May 15, 2013.)     

Whitmire has also used campaign money to buy stock, a practice that isn’t prohibited as long as the officeholder doesn’t profit from the investments. He has bought at least 375,737 shares of more than 50 companies, and the value of those stocks is more than $6.6 million. 

Whitmire was elected to the Texas House in 1973, serving for a decade before his election to the state Senate in 1983. 

Fortunately for Whitmire, he hasn’t faced strong opposition in his heavily Democratic district, providing more campaign money for other purposes. 

Since 2002, he has faced just one primary challenge. In general elections, he has averaged about 60 percent of the popular vote. 

Contact Johnny Kampis at [email protected]. 

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