Senate big spender #5: Robert Nichols

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In a district where the per-capita income is just $22,224, few people could afford rent of $1,629 per month. But that’s what state Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) pays for his Austin pad at the apartment complex City View at SoCo.

He’s had the apartment for a decade, spending $155,625 to rent it since 2007 even though he technically only needs it in odd-numbered years when legislators are in session. He rented it in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016, paying the bill with campaign funds, despite the fact the Texas Legislature only meets every other year.

He doesn’t exactly live in a shanty back home — Nichols owns a 13,975-square-foot home on 87 acres of land in Jacksonville valued at $780,720, Texas Tribune reports.

The Texas Monitor examined expenses paid for by campaign funds for every state lawmaker, ranking each of them by the total spent on high-end living expenses that includes costly travel, fancy Austin apartments, leases or purchases of high-powered cars and tokens of appreciation for friends and voters. Nichols has spent just over a cool half-million on such expenses since 2007, ranking him fifth in the Texas Senate.

Since being elected to that legislative body in 2006, Nichols has faced little opposition. He’s either been unopposed or went up against Libertarians he easily defeated in 2010 and 2014. He has only faced opposition in the Republican primary in 2012. Thanks to that, Nichols has plenty of cash on hand: he’s received $4.5 million in contributions and spent $3.4 million since 2007.

Nichols has put that money to use, including the purchase of three vehicles for himself during that time span. Three expenditure listings for “campaign vehicle” show he spent $54,811.46 in 2009, $42,064.44 in 2013 and $43,108.99 in 2016, all at Bill McRae Ford in Jacksonville.

In addition, more than $20,000 in campaign funds have gone to pay related car costs, including insurance, maintenance, washes and vehicle registration.

In all, Nichols spent more than $162,000 on cars and car expenses between 2007 and 2016. That makes him one of seven current Texas lawmakers who have spent at least six figures on their campaign-funded cars over the past decade. Those seven have collectively spent $1.6 million on their wheels, The Texas Monitor recently reported.

Ed Bender, executive director of the Institute on Money in State Politics, said he wouldn’t call that type of spending irresponsible, given that it’s using money donated by campaigns rather than taxpayer money. But he warned that spending $50,000 for a new car is a judgment call that the lawmakers must make cautiously.

“That is a judgment that some people in Texas might question,” Bender said.

He said that in a state with no contribution limits, it’s not uncommon to see a candidate like Nichols and his fifth-highest spending counterpart in the Texas House, Rene Oliveira, able to build up massive campaign war chests over the years.

“It looks like these guys are certainly living high on the hog on campaign contributions,” Bender said. “The fact is these guys have had little or no opposition yet they’re raising six figures and spending six figures.”

Special interests eagerly give to candidates in a state with no contribution limits, often expecting something in return for that money. Top industries giving to Nichols over the past decade include transportation ($388,620), building/construction ($367,144) and gambling ($234,634).

Although he has bought himself private vehicles through campaign funds, Nichols reports spending nearly $40,000 on private aviation services, which includes rentals, pilot wages and aircraft maintenance.

State laws that determine how campaign funds can be used prevent legislators from spending the money on gifts for themselves and their families, but it doesn’t stop them from showering goodies upon others. Nichols has put that exception to high use, spending $42,744 at the Capitol Gift Shop over the past decade for expenditures listed as “officeholder/campaign constituent gifts” and “auction items.” He also lists $33,864 in campaign expenses to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for furniture purchased for similar reasons.

In addition, Nichols’ records show $29,500 for items purchased from the Texas Senate to give as gifts, such as flags that have flown over the Capitol and commemorative calendars.

In March 2016, Nichols and two guests used his campaign funds to travel to Panama for a reason listed as “Senate Transportation Committee Fact Finding Mission.” Three flights cost $2,547, while food and lodging at the Trump Ocean Club was another $4,397. Nichols serves as the chairman of that committee.

Sydni Mitchell, a spokeswoman from Nichols’ office, told The Texas Monitor he traveled there with his transportation committee director and legislative director to learn how the opening of the new locks in the Panama Canal would impact Texas ports.

“As the state would not pay, and he did not want to use lobby or industry funding for this trip he used campaign funds. This was after he checked with the Ethics Commission to ensure it was a legitimate use of campaign funds, and they confirmed it was,” Mitchell wrote in an emailed reply. “As Chairman, he felt it was important to see how these locks work and the size of the ships going through, as the ports in our state are not equipped for the size of ships now going through Panama.”

She said Nichols declined to comment on the other expenses listed in this report.

Also of note, Nichols has paid himself $570,863 from his campaign funds in reimbursements, loan repayments and mileage.

He previously got in hot water with the Texas Ethics Commission for campaign finance violations shortly after his initial election. Nichols initially reported about $17,400 of political expenditures as reimbursements without revealing the names and addresses of the payees, listing a description of the goods or services received, or the purpose of the expenditures. He later filed corrected reports and paid a $1,700 fine imposed by the commission.

Contact Johnny Kampis at [email protected].

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