Questioning the ethics of Perry's Bahamas tripAMERICAN-STATESMAN EDITORIAL BOARD
Sunday, April 25, 2004
Gov. Rick Perry says that his use of political campaign funds to pay for a recent trip by private plane to the Bahamas -- to discuss public school finance, he said -- violated no law. If the Texas Ethics Commission agrees, the governor will have turned the well-heeled Austin lobby into one big travel agency.
State law says candidates and officeholders cannot convert money and services given to them to run for office, or to pay for public office-related expenses, to personal use. Candidates and officeholders can use campaign contributions to buy election ads, for example, or to rent an apartment in Austin while the Legislature meets.
But officeholders are not free to take that extra $10,000 in the campaign account to pay their child's college tuition or to invest in their business -- or, many Texans probably would assume, to travel to the Bahamas. Besides state law, there's another problem with such spending: One reason former state Attorney General Dan Morales sits in a federal prison is that he converted $420,000 in campaign funds to personal use -- purchase of a home -- but failed to report it as income on his federal tax return.
The line between personal and office-related uses can blur. One service required by law of the Texas Ethics Commission is to answer questions from officeholders who are not sure what would be a legitimate expenditure. This is especially useful for officeholders who don't want to practice a dime's worth more of ethics than the law requires.
The ethics commission also considers allegations of improper use of campaign funds, which is why it is considering the complaint filed against Perry for his February trip to the Bahamas. He used his political funds to pay trip expenses for himself, his wife and three staff staff members. The complainant is Judicial Watch, a Washington-based government watchdog group that calls the governor's trip "a personal tropical island vacation, unrelated to any legitimate campaign event."
It's hard to take seriously the argument from the governor's office that the purpose of the trip was to discuss school finance and "political strategy." Obviously, the total party of 14 could have as easily convened at the Governor's Mansion, or South Padre Island.
Still, if the governor prevails, then the door will be thrown wide open for public officeholders to tap campaign contributions for travel with no real restriction. Just have a cover story: Gone to Paris to discuss workers' compensation. Visited Hawaii to mull over medical malpractice insurance. Went to the Australian beaches to think hard about cigarette taxes.
The danger to the public is that lavish trips could become a legal way for those who wield influence with their political contributions, not their ballots, to provide an officeholder with a significant personal benefit. That wasn't Perry's private jet that flew the group to the Bahamas.
Perry has answered the complaint, his press secretary says, but state law bars the commission from releasing it (or even acknowledging its existence) and the governor refuses to disclose it. Perry won't even say how much the trip cost until he files his next campaign finance report with the ethics commission. He should disclose both immediately to the public that elected him.
The governor is in no legal danger here. Even if the commission rules against him, there is no criminal penalty; he would only pay a civil penalty equal to the amount he spent on the trip.
If the governor is right that he crossed no legal lines on his trip, then the Legislature should close this loophole before the 747s start flying through it on their way to the finest resorts in the world. To discuss school finance, of course.