Legislators lax on offering donation infoVictoria Rossi-Daily Texan
Published: Thursday, June 22, 2006
Updated: Friday, January 9, 2009
Some Texas lawmakers haven't followed their own requirements to disclose information about top campaign donors, according to a report released by a state watchdog group Tuesday. One hundred eighty-one lawmakers reported collecting nearly $17 million in contributions, but only released the occupations and employers of 58 percent of individual donors.
A 2003 campaign reform bill required the information for contributions more than $500 in order to inform voters where elected officials receive their funds.
"Lawmakers have two constituents," said Andrew Wheat, research director of the Texans for Public Justice report. "One are voters, the others are the donors. By donors, we're not talking about average Texas families. These are the big fish."
Researchers looked to nearly 15,000 campaign finance reports and ranked individual lawmakers based on their number of large donations with sufficiently disclosed information, as well as the total value of those contributions. The full legal requirements of the bill still haven't been set in stone, said Wheat, who acknowledged the TPJ report held lawmakers to higher standards than the law currently entails.
Most legislators get half or all of their money from districts outside their own, which usually comes from the Texas ZIP code closest to Capitol grounds - a clear sign the money is coming from special interests and lobbying groups, he said.
Three senators and 28 representatives didn't disclose information about any of their donors, according to the report, which also said inadequate disclosures didn't pertain exclusively to either party. Some state officials listed job descriptions that were too vague, Wheat said.
Three legislators with donations from Alice Walton, for example, should have described her as the owner of Wal-Mart instead of the terms that were actually used: "businesswoman, investor or rancher," according to the report. Bob Perry, Texas' top donor and owner of a billion-dollar Houston real estate firm, was categorized by some as a builder and would have been better identified as a CEO, Wheat said.
"Those are very public figures," said Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris, who was named in the report for not designating his parents as anything more than "retired." "There's not a whole lot of people who don't already know what people like Bob Perry and T. Boone Pickens do for a living." Pickens is an oilman and corporate raider.
Some lawmakers, like Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat who has the most contributions with undisclosed data, say they weren't familiar with the new requirements and will redraft their reports. But when the law went into effect nearly two years ago, the Texas Ethics Commission sent out a notice telling legislators the listings were no longer optional, said Tim Sorrells, commission spokesman.
Others were less apologetic about their choice of terms. Homer disagreed that he should have said his parents were retired Sonic franchise owners, saying he "wasn't hiding anything."
"We believe we complied with the law," said Alexis DeLee, spokeswoman for House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. According to the watchdog group, Craddick reported only 75 percent of the required information, with several of his loosely described donors among the top contributors in Texas. "The law requires that legislators make their best effort to identify the occupation of donors, and we made our best effort to do so."
According to House Bill 1606, which was hotly debated when it passed through the Legislature in 2003, a lawmaker's "best effort" would involve requesting donors' background information within 30 days of drafting their finance reports.