Texas Monitor Week In Review — July 16, 2017

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This week, The Texas Monitor unveiled the number one House big spender featured in our “Lifestyles of State Lawmakers” series.

Our research team has been digging through campaign reports for state legislators going back a decade, uncovering millions of dollars of expenditures that appear to give lawmakers a more extravagant lifestyle than many of their constituents.

Coming in at number 1 in the Texas House is Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the major lifestyle spending categories included in our tabulation.

We found he likes the role as a gift-giver.

The Texas Monitor’s examination of Straus’ campaign fund spending shows more than $300,000 spent on gifts, including $41,000 for knick-knacks at the Capitol Gift Shop, $13,000 at Kaas Glassworks for gifts for dignitaries and donors, and $4,500 for baby shower gifts.

And Straus doesn’t forget his staff. Records show 140 expenditures totaling $72,300 that were described as “staff gifts.”

Straus is a regular barnstormer when it comes to travel.

His wanderlust has taken him to conferences from Albany to Albuquerque, Baltimore to Bangor, Raleigh to Reno, San Diego to Seattle and just about every city in between. His campaign finance account pays for a chunk of each of those trips.

We also found that Straus dips into his campaign account to pay for some of the best advice money can buy.

Payments to consultants and consulting firms rack up to nearly $5 million since just 2010. These expenditures include a cool million to Burson Masteller, $911,000 to Gordon Johnson, and $690,000 to LHP+Company.

Since 2010, his campaign has also spent $1.64 million for salaries.

And while he spends cash quickly, he refills his campaign coffers just as fast.

Straus has raised $32.1 million since 2007. And with little, significant competition for his seat, he’s likely going to be raising money — and spending it — for many years to come.

That’s why some critics say that unlimited campaign money is a problem. Safe politicians can keep raking in big money from special interests while seldom facing stiff election competition.

But we also spoke with those who didn’t have a big problem with Straus’ big spending, such as Brooks Harrison, a politically connected Houston attorney.

He told us: “The House Speaker is not a run-of- the-mill state representative or state senator even. A speaker of the house is a speaker for the entire house. I would fully expect his expenditures to be more than some Rio Grande Valley state representative who has 1,500 people in his district.”

A Houston Community College trustee has pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge.

HCC trustee Chris Oliver was arrested in March and pleaded guilty in May, according to court records.

Although rumors swirled throughout Houston political circles for months that Oliver was being targeted by the feds, prosecutors kept the case under wraps until just last week.

Oliver is accused of taking nearly $90,000 in bribes, some of which came in the form of Visa gift cards, according to court records.

Oliver pleaded guilty to only one of two counts he was indicted on. In the other count, federal prosecutors allege he accepted $12,000 in bribes. On Thursday, his fellow trustees censured Oliver, and he was stripped from his position as vice-chairman of the board and chair of the trustee’s audit committee.

Oliver is scheduled to be sentenced August 28.

The Texas Tribune continues its investigation into the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission

In the wake of reporting by the Tribune’s Jay Root, Licensing Director Amy Harrison became the seventh official out at the commission overseeing alcohol sales in Texas.

Harrison helped oversee the creation of a controversial flyer depicting agency brass partying during out-of-state junkets. Her departure comes less than a week after the acting executive director abruptly quit, saying he did not want to participate in the “termination” of Harrison.

The TABC has seen a spate of departures since The Texas Tribune began reporting a series of stories about the agency, including lavish trips officials took to out-of- state resorts, questionable use of peace officer status by agency brass, and failures to accurately maintain records of state-owned vehicles.

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