Texas Monitor Week in Review – June 4, 2017

This week, The Texas Monitor continued its ongoing investigative series, Lifestyles of State Lawmakers, in which we examine the ways that legislators tap donor cash for personal benefit.

Legislators only make $7,200 a year from the state, but we’ve shown so far that many legislators spend far more than that out of their campaign coffers on travel to tourist destinations, luxurious accommodations while in Austin, and day-to-day transportation via personal cars and even private planes.

This week’s report reveals that legislators spend big money in another way—showering supporters and others with gifts—to the tune of $3.3 million in total over the past ten years.

What better way to say thanks than with flowers? Ask state Rep. Tom Craddick, a Republican from Midland. He has spent $64,000 in campaign cash on flowers since 2007, and as much as $7,400 in a single purchase.

Sporting tickets are another popular pick, like an $8,500 outing to see the Houston Rockets in July 2013, compliments of state Sen. John Whitmire. The Houston Democrat has spent over $162,000 on sports tickets out of his campaign account since 2011.

Legislators are even allowed to buy each other gifts with their donor cash, and so they have, to the tune of almost $180,000 over the past decade. Leading the pack is state Sen. Carlos Uresti, who you’ll hear more about later. One of his go-to sources for gifts is the retailer, Things Remembered, where he went on a $2,900 shopping spree for his fellow senators in 2015.

Political science professor, Richard Murray, of the University of Houston told us that this is all within the rules—rules that the legislators make for themselves. “There’s not a real fix for it,” Murray said, pointing to the inability of ordinary citizens to take action and the lack of political will within the system.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks as we spotlight the top spenders from each chamber.

The prosecution in the criminal case against Attorney General Ken Paxton suffered another major blow this week when an appeals court removed the presiding judge.

The court ruled that Judge George Gallagher lost control of the case when he moved it from Collin County to Harris County, because he needed consent from both sides to stay on and Paxton refused.

The prosecution previously argued that they couldn’t get an impartial jury in Paxton’s home turf near Dallas. Gallagher ruled in their favor to move the case to the Houston area, where Democrats are in the majority.
This development comes on the heels of last month’s decision by county officials to cut off payments to the special prosecutors. At issue in that ruling was whether the Collin County Commissioners were obliged to pay the special prosecutors’ bills, which had exceeded a half-million dollars. It was Judge Gallagher who had ordered the commissioners to make an exception to court rules limiting criminal prosecution expenses.

On Friday, the prosecution asked the state’s highest criminal court to overturn the appellate court decision and reinstate Gallagher as the presiding judge.

In other news, state Senator Carlos Uresti—yes, the senator with the penchant for pouring gifts on his fellow legislators—pleaded not guilty to fraud and corruption charges in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio on Wednesday, according to the San Antonio Express-News. He faces thirteen charges, including fraud, money laundering and bribery, and faces up to 200 years in prison if found guilty on all counts.