Texas Monitor Week in Review – May 21, 2017

The Texas Monitor broke the story this week that the executive pastor at one of the largest megachurches in the United States has sued state Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana for defrauding him on a half-million-dollar investment.

According to the lawsuit, Mike Buster of Prestwood Baptist Church in Plano bought mineral interests from a Cook-controlled company called Unity Resources, LLC. A commission was to be the company’s only compensation. But according to the allegations, Unity sold the properties back and forth with other Cook-controlled entities to drive up the cost before dumping them on the pastor.

This dispute comes out of the same investment group at the center of a criminal securities fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton. Cook is Paxton’s chief accuser, and the case against Paxton will come down to Cook’s assertions that the investment group had formal policies about how members could profit off each other.

Now that Cook himself has been sued, he faces a potential dilemma. In the Unity Resources matter, his attorney has said that “there was no formal group.” If Cook sticks to that story, his testimony in the case against Paxton could unravel. But if he testifies and stands by his accusations against Paxton, he could undermine his own defense in the Unity Resources matter and potentially face perjury charges.

In other developments in the Paxton case, the Fifth District Court of Appeals halted the prosecution until it can determine whether the case can be moved from Paxton’s home turf of Collin County to Harris County, where Democrats are the majority. Also, the Collin County Commissioners Court is due to vote on whether to pay a $205,000 bill from the special prosecutors. A taxpayer lawsuit claims the bill grossly exceeds limits imposed by county rules.

This week, The Texas Monitor continued its investigation into the spending habits of state legislators.

The pay for serving in the state legislature is just $600 per month. They get an extra $190 a day to cover living expenses during their time in Austin every other year.

So how do they make ends meet? Private sector careers for the most part. But there’s another chunk of change that some dip intotheir campaign accounts.

State law governs how campaign money can be spent; but some say the rules are too loose, and that lobbyists dole out cash for lavish perks in exchange for favors.

We’ve previously uncovered a pattern of travel to tourist destinations like Europe and Hawaii, supposedly related to state business. This week’s report delves into the luxurious lifestyles some lead while in Austin, compliments of their campaign contributors.

Take Senator Joan Huffman from Houston. She spent over $45,000 on rent during 2016 for a downtown Austin luxury apartment and another nine grand on high-end furniture.

When it comes to fine dining, the Austin Club is a top pick. Since 2007, legislators spent $98,000 at the exclusive eatery. Representative Dan Huberty out of Humble is a regular, averaging over $500 per visit.

Are we to believe that donors get nothing in exchange for funding these perks? None of the legislators we contacted got back with us to explain.

Check in with us next week for a look into the stylish rides that come with elected office.

The San Antonio Express reported this week that state Senator Carlos Uresti was arrested on multiple criminal charges related to two separate cases. He could face more than 200 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

In one case, Uresti is charged for his involvement in an oil field services company that allegedly defrauded investors.

Uresti is separately accused of conspiring with others to pay and accept bribes to secure a contract with the Reeves County Correctional Center.

The senator returned to the state capitol to participate in the final stretch of the legislative session. His next day in court is May 31, when he is expected to formally plead not guilty.