Texas Monitor Week in Review – May 28, 2017

This week, The Texas Monitor continued its investigation into the lifestyles of state lawmakers, delving into the ways that legislators get around on the lobby dime.

The state pays $7,200 a year to legislators, and that hardly affords a life of luxury. But is that the full picture? Not at all, say government watchdog groups. They told us campaign spending laws are too lax, allowing lawmakers to live in style off donations from special interests.

Our reports so far have uncovered travel to exotic destinations and posh Austin accommodations, and this week’s report reveals that many legislators also treat themselves to cars and even private planes out of their campaign coffers.

For instance, State Sen. Craig Estes, a Republican from Wichita Falls, has spent $317,000 on private planes and another $143,000 on car expenses since 2007.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo, pays for not one but two cars out of her campaign account. She drives a Lincoln Navigator, while her staff tool around in a Chevy. Over the last ten years, she’s spent over $200,000 on car expenses.

But they’re not alone. Seven current legislators have spent six figures on their cars, collectively shelling out $1.6 million in campaign funds on motor-related expenses since 2007.

Check out our full report to see how they explain themselves, and follow our continuing series on the lobby-fueled lifestyles at the capitol.

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The Texas Tribune reported that three bills aimed at restricting lobbyists died in the Texas House on Thursday.

The bills would have banned retiring lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for two years, prohibited local officials from becoming state lobbyists, and forced more disclosure of lobbyists wining and dining legislators.

An ethics watchdog group attributed the bills’ demise to House leadership under Republican Speaker Joe Straus. His leadership team is a “boot camp for the lobby”, the watchdog group told the Tribune. Indeed, five Straus-appointed chairmen retired after last legislative session and are now lobbying their former colleagues for big bucks.

Both Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick supported the bills and put ethics reform at the top of their policy wish lists.

Other ethics bills have passed both chambers for Abbott’s signature. One will strip pensions from officials convicted of corruption. Another will beef up disclosure requirements on state officials who do business with local governments. And another will prohibit ex-lawmakers from using their leftover campaign cash to lobby.

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On Monday, the prosecutors in the criminal case against Attorney General Ken Paxton were dealt a major blow.

The Houston-area lawyers have racked up $600,000 in fees to the taxpayers of Collin County near Dallas, where the trial is being held. Collin County Court rules prohibit such hefty legal bills, and a battle has broken out over whether an exception should be made for the high-ranking Paxton. On Monday, the county commissioners voted to cut off the tab and disregard the latest invoice for $205,000.

The prosecutors threatened to quit the case earlier this year if they weren’t paid. With Monday’s vote, the burden shifts to them to sue for payment.

Ken Paxton’s legal team has argued from the beginning that the securities fraud case against him is a witch hunt staged by his political rivals, including his chief accuser in the case, State Rep. Byron Cook.

Cook has also been sued on separate fraud allegations that, like his complaints against Paxton, relate to an investment group they both belonged to. This could pose another big problem for the prosecutors at trial in September, assuming they don’t abandon the case over nonpayment. Their star witness is Cook, and his testimony may fall apart due to contradictions between his claims against Paxton and his own defense against his accusers.