Tapping campaign cash pays for lawmakers’ exotic trips, resort stays

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For many couples, a sightseeing trip to Costa Rica would be a costly affair, with penny-pinching and coupon-cutting to save for the trip.

But former state Sen. Troy Fraser didn’t pay a dime for travel when he jetted with his wife on a 2010 Central American sojourn.

His political donors footed the bill.

Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, stated on his travel reports that he was on his way to Panama to meet then-President Ricardo Martinelli, a pro-business populist, when he stopped in Costa Rica.

Fraser spent more than $1,600 on plane tickets for the Costa Rica trip, and $562 for a night at The Springs Resort, which describes itself on its website as a “luxury hotel” with a “spectacular view of the Arenal Volcano, natural hot and cold springs, five unique dining experiences, and an impressive full service Spa.”

Fraser spent another $267 for a rental car during the three-day stop.

All paid from his campaign finance account.

At the time, Fraser — who retired last year after two decades in the Senate — chaired the Natural Resources and Economic Development committee. And the chief purpose of the trip, Fraser stated on his campaign finance report, was to visit wind farms in this Central American tourist jewel.

Costa Rica is not known for its wind farms. At the time of his visit, two percent of the country’s energy came from wind power.

Indeed, Fraser could have saved the money donated to him for campaigning if he wanted to learn about wind farms.

Texas is the most prolific state in the U.S. in terms of wind power. And one of the world’s largest wind farms sits in Roscoe — 47 miles from Fraser’s Abilene office in the far northwest area of his expansive district.

After his journey to the Costa Rican resort, Fraser never authored or sponsored a bill related to wind power.

Fraser did not return a call seeking more details about his travel.

State elected officials enjoy travel perks that most of their constituents could not afford, with many of them spending freely from campaign coffers that build into multi-million dollar piggy banks.

In some cases, these funds build as candidates run without significant —or even any — opposition, nullifying the need to spend donations on actual campaign expenses.

These campaign accounts can underwrite luxury travel, high-end transportation, gifts for staff and friends from Neiman Marcus, and box seats to the biggest sporting events.

The candidates are enabled by potentially favor-seeking donors, many of whom are high rollers who end up bankrolling lawmakers’ interests.

In 2000, Texas held 150 races for the statehouse, with 265 candidates raising a collective $28 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

By 2016, there were 153 races, 350 candidates and $71 million raised.  

Adjusted for inflation, the amount raised increased over 50 percent.

A review of legislators past and present with the largest cash-on-hand finds trips to Europe, Latin America, resorts in British Columbia, Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, along with cities all over the U.S.

The hotels are often five stars, and sometimes include several staffers.

Commercial flights that could cost a couple hundred dollars run into the thousands of dollars, with no obligation on the purchaser for an explanation.

This spending is legal, perfectly within a state election code statute that hasn’t been adjusted in decades.

The king of campaign cash is state Rep. Joe Straus, the dean of state politics and Speaker of the House since 2009. At the end of 2016, Straus, R-San Antonio, had a $10.3 million campaign war chest, $3 million more than the second place Sen. John Whitmire.

Elected in 2005, Straus has spent $21 million since 2007.

The campaign spending of Straus befits his status. His trips — 27 in all —reflect a man in motion at all times, never staying in anything below a Hilton but also including the Westin in Georgetown in Washington D.C., Fairmont hotels in Dallas and D.C, the Warwick Melrose in Dallas, W Hotels in D.C. and New York.

Much of the time, donors pay for his wife to accompany him.

In 2012, he faced a primary challenge from local businessman Matt Beebe. Straus had $4 million to work with, while Beebee’s coffers topped out at $94,000.

Straus took the primary with 63 percent of the vote.

Straus spent $3,018 on airfares in the weeks leading up to the election, including trips to San Francisco and New York, as well as out-of-district campaign appearances in Harlingen and Dallas.

Straus’ office did not return a call seeking comment.

The sometimes outsized spending projects a high-living image of jet setting and hotel suites, all funded by donors who may need a favor.

“It just so happens that you can’t put money directly in the back pocket, and parsing this gets difficult for a watchdog because of the terse campaign finance reporting forms,” said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice. “It is hard to discern what is a lifestyle expense and what is a campaign expense.”

Reform, he said, is likely out of the question.

“I don’t think it’s hard to understand the lack of will to do that,” Wheat said. “These things benefit the very politicians who have the power to fix it.”

The travel perks include high end airfares, such as a $2,624 ticket purchased from the campaign chest of state Rep. Charlie Geren in 2014 to attend a conference in Banff, Alberta sponsored by an energy group.

Geren, R-Fort Worth, also paid $2,177 to stay at the Fairmont-owned Chateau Lake Louise.

Geren’s other stays include at $1,643 hotel bill at a Fairmont in Washington D.C. for an annual event put on by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.

“We stayed at the Fairmont because that’s where everyone else stayed,” Geren said.

Conferences, meetings and other events meant to attract attendees are held in more prominent, often higher end locations, to draw more people.

“They want people to come,” Geren said. “And you won’t get a lot of people coming to an event held in a place that’s not so nice.”

The statute that governs campaign fund spending is 253.035 of the Texas Election Code.

Over the years, the statute has diminished in importance, and the last time it was the subject of a question was in 2015, when someone asked if the money could be used to fund a legal action. (Answer: Yes, as long as the case is connected to activities as a candidate)

State lawmakers are part-time and receive $7,200 a year for their service, which entails trips to Austin for committee meetings and other considerations. Those trips are generally accepted as a suitable use of campaign funds, either via air or car.

The larger trips, though, sometimes appear to double as vacations for legislators.

When state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Denton, attended a 2012 training session put on in Miami by GOPAC, a conservative group that claims the mission of “educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders,” she brought along her husband.

His mission, according to her state filings was to “assist with duties…” The couple stayed at the five-star, luxury Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, at a cost of $856.

Nelson, who has been in office since 1993, has also made four trips with her husband to Hawaii in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2014, twice rolling their hotel bills into the trip at $1,329 in 2012 and $1,084 in 2008.

The campaign also paid $1,979 for airfare for the 2008 trip, although details for the trip did not break out how many tickets that amount covered.

The reason for the trips was the annual conference of the Independent Voter Project, a San Diego-based non-profit that has drawn fire from watchdog groups for the extravagant annual soiree.

Nelson did not return a call seeking comment.

Lawmakers have two options for travel related to their roles in Austin: They can request reimbursement from the state or they can use campaign funds.

Some parties insist that the campaign funds are better used than taxpayer money. Geren, for example, notes that “I have never traveled on state money.”

Others see the spending of donations as a barometer of the financial policies and practices of the spenders.

“If they are taking campaign donations to get elected then doing so in the lap of luxury doesn’t give the appearance of fiscal conservatism,” said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

It will take wrongdoing of large proportions before the expenditure statute is altered significantly, said Wheat, with Texans for Public Justice.

“To get anything like that done takes a huge scandal,” Wheat said.  He noted the changes enacted in the wake of the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal of the 70s, when several lawmakers were indicted, campaign finance disclosure laws were retooled and the ruling Democratic elite were swept from office.

“That’s when the better campaign finance reforms come,” he said.

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or [email protected].

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