Ethics loophole looms large during special session

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The Texas State Capitol

It’s illegal for lawmakers and statewide elected officials to accept campaign cash during the regular legislative session in Austin — but it’s no holds barred during special sessions when contributions can be doled out by special interests seeking to influence votes.

Gov. Greg Abbott called for a special session that began last week. He wants the Texas Legislature to address nearly two dozen items, such as measures to keep the operations of the Texas Medical Board and other agencies funded, a teacher pay hike, and the hot-button bathroom bill.

On Abbott’s own agenda, though, is increasing the size of his campaign coffers, already boasting $41 million.

A Sunday report by Houston Chronicle investigative reporter James Drew outlined some who were taking advantage of the special session loophole, and the list included Abbott himself.

From the Chronicle:

His campaign solicited donors with a midnight deadline on the opening day of the special session…

The Abbott campaign also used the special session as a reason why contributors should pour more money into the governor’s coffers.

“During the next 30 days, lawmakers are going to tackle important issues to Texans from out-of-control local regulations to skyrocketing property taxes to runaway state and local spending,” campaign aide Mary Ruegg wrote in an email blast a day after the special session convened. “Contribute right away if you support Governor Abbott’s special session agenda.”

Abbott wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the chance to raise money during the period that votes would be cast.

Also from Drew:

State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, held a fundraiser last Tuesday, the first day of the special session, at the Austin Club, a private venue three blocks from the Capitol. Sponsors included three powerful lobbyist firms — the Graydon Group, Focused Advocacy, and Blackridge.

State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, raised money Thursday afternoon, also at the Austin Club. A small group gathered in the club’s ornate Medallion Room, including state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat first elected to the Senate in 1992. Donors to Miles could be a “champion” for $10,000, a “host” for $5,000, a “sponsor” for $2,500 and a “friend” for $1,000. A web portal for contributions features a thermometer with a $100,000 goal.

The filing deadline to report contributions is within 30 days of the session’s adjournment, and it’s possible the special session could run until mid-August. That means Texas voters will likely be kept in the dark for months what special interests were cutting checks to which lawmakers during the session.

Read Drew’s full report here: Ethics loophole benefits officials

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

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