Sunday, December 17, 2006

Campaign contributions are designed to fund runs for office – advertising, mailings and voter turnout drives to help candidates win. But North Texas lawmakers also spend thousands of their campaign dollars on fine dining, luxury hotel stays and gifts from designer retailers; tens of thousands on car leases, home rental, and even private airplanes; and hundreds of thousands on contributions to other candidates, including friends and colleagues. Read the article at the Dallas Morning News.

Do campaign funds bankroll a cushy lifestyle?

Exclusive: Area legislators defend thousands in non-election expenses

Sunday, December 17, 2006
By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Campaign contributions are designed to fund runs for office – advertising, mailings and voter turnout drives to help candidates win.

But North Texas lawmakers also spend thousands of their campaign dollars on fine dining, luxury hotel stays and gifts from designer retailers; tens of thousands on car leases, home rental, and even private airplanes; and hundreds of thousands on contributions to other candidates, including friends and colleagues.

A Dallas Morning News review of campaign finance reports filed by the area's lawmakers in the last two years shows that nearly half of what they spent – about $2.2 million – went for things unrelated to their campaigns.

It's all legal, as long as the expenses are related, even indirectly, to their role as state legislators. And lawmakers defend it, saying they're expected to maintain two households and two offices but are paid little.

"You need the flexibility to not only do your job back at home in the district, but also to spend time in Austin," said Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who used campaign funds to rent a 1996 Chevy Blazer to drive during the 2005 session of the Legislature.

"I need a place to hang up my suits and my ties and keep my toiletries, and to sleep after late nights on the House floor. That's part of it as well."

But with the bulk of these campaign contributions coming from high-dollar donors and special-interest groups seeking help in the Legislature, advocates for campaign finance reform say the system opens the door for corruption.

Most of these legislators are in safe seats and don't need much money to get re-elected. So the money they raise is bankrolling a standard of living, watchdogs say.

"Many of these legislators have virtually no opposition and don't need the campaign money," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, which studies the influence of money in state politics. "But they're happy to take money to maintain their lifestyle."

Texas legislators are paid an annual salary of $7,200, plus an allowance of $128 for every day the Legislature is in session. This adds up to about $25,000 for a regular 140-day session – far from a comfortable full-time salary and one of the lowest in the country.

All of the 21 current and former North Texas legislators that The News tracked used campaign money on travel, meals, gifts, flowers and office supplies. Almost all of them spent their funds on apartments and utilities, auto expenses and insurance, and contributions to other candidates or officeholders. Nine lawmakers spent more than half of their campaign expenditures on costs unrelated to their runs for office.

Nothing unusual

Such spending is typical for lawmakers. Expense reports from the last two years included dinners at upscale steakhouses, stays at top hotels and thousands of dollars in gifts from Neiman Marcus and jeweler Tiffany & Co.

"There are certain expenses we incur every day as we work for the people of Texas. We're using these officeholder accounts to defray ordinary, necessary costs," said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. "It's up to each individual [legislator] to look at their own conscience and to decide what is and what is not considered 'working for the people.' "

Among North Texas lawmakers:

•Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, was one of North Texas' biggest spenders. He aided Dallas County district attorney candidate Vic Cunningham with a $25,000 campaign contribution and has given $30,000 to the Dallas County Republican Party since 2005. He gave another $30,000 to other candidates, including colleagues like Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, and Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville. Nearly $9,000 in campaign expenditures went toward "aircraft maintenance." Mr. Carona wasn't on the ballot this year; he won re-election unopposed in 2004.

•Ms. Shapiro, who had no opponent to battle for re-election last month, spent about $16,000 on gifts for staff and constituents. She spent more than $6,000 in stays at luxury hotels, from The Ritz Carlton to Austin favorites The Driskill and The Mansion at Judge's Hill.

•Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, spent $24,000 on auto expenses, including putting a $10,000 down payment on a leased vehicle. In the last two years, he also spent nearly $6,000 outfitting his offices and $5,900 furnishing his Austin residence. Like Mr. Carona, he won his 2004 race with no opposition.

•Mr. Deuell spent $18,000 on auto-related expenses, from car payments to gas to auto insurance and rental cars. He won re-election last month with 79 percent of the vote.

•Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, spent more than $17,000 on accommodations in Austin. Mr. West had no opposition in his last contest, two years ago.

•Two lawmakers – Reps. Roberto Alonzo and Terri Hodge, both Dallas Democrats – spent less than 30 percent of their money on running campaigns. Both had noncompetitive races in 2006. And both spent far less in the last two years than most of their North Texas counterparts.

"Depending on how busy of a race you have, you change your focus from mail-outs and phone calls and buying ads to doing outreach in the community, holding meetings, doing a lot of events," Mr. Alonzo said. "We're also maintaining two households, living in two places at the same time."

Mr. Carona said he often uses campaign funds to contribute to other candidates who share his ideology – and has never had a complaint from his contributors or constituents. He's not shy about spending campaign money to maintain his company's private jet, which he uses in a bind to get him from business meetings back to legislative and district events.

But he said much of his funding goes back into his district for meetings and mailers, and to reward staff members for their performance.

"I try to use the smell test," he said. "Would the person who wrote you that check appreciate you spending it that way?"

Staying afloat

Mr. Driver said campaign funds are often necessary to keep legislators afloat.

As a freshman representative, he said, he didn't know campaign law allowed him to use his officeholder account for noncampaign expenses, and he feared the costs would be prohibitive.

"I'm not independently wealthy, and I thought to myself, 'I don't know if I can afford this!' " he said.

But he doesn't approve of going overboard. Mr. Driver said he shares the two-bedroom Austin apartment he rents with a colleague to cut costs. And his campaign contributions to other candidates are limited to "helping other House members when they have tough campaigns."

To Mr. McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, the expenditures show the need for campaign reform. He said legislators routinely use campaign dollars for expenses "any normal person would consider personal." His group plans to push lawmakers to enact a $100,000 cap on donations from an individual or political committee during a single campaign. Currently, state law places no limits on donations.

A 2004 study by the now-defunct Campaigns for People showed that Texas senators spent just 40 percent of their campaign dollars running for office. The remaining 60 percent went toward living, office and other expenses.

Under the state elections code, "what [legislators] are not allowed to do is convert political contributions to personal use," said Tim Sorrell, spokesman for the Texas Ethics Commission. But there are exceptions.

The law allows those who don't live in Austin to use campaign funds to pay for rent, utilities and other expenses associated with maintaining a residence there. If they're using a car for office-holder duties, Mr. Sorrell said, that fits the bill, too.

But they're supposed to be clear exactly what they're spending their money on. According to The News' study, that's not always the case.

Many North Texas lawmakers used campaign funds to reimburse themselves, and they sometimes failed to attach the proper forms explaining each of the reimbursements. Other times, they used the proper forms, but the expenditures didn't add up to the total reimbursed amount.

Several other Dallas legislators used campaign funds to pay off credit cards used for office-related expenses but failed to list specific purchases.

The ethics commission "says somebody reading the report should be able to know what goods or services were purchased or leased," Mr. Sorrell said. And all reports of expenditures by credit card must identify the actual vendor, not just the credit card company, he said.

Mr. Alonzo, whose reports for the last two years don't always have the proper filing forms linked to his reimbursements, cited complex disclosure rules. But he added: "That's something we have to do, and we will get it done."

Mr. Anchia, who paid off Visa bills, gave specific information about what the purchases were for but listed the credit card company instead of the actual vendors. He said he intends to file a bill this session to provide mandatory ethics training for state legislators to prevent other such "innocuous mistakes."

"There are a lot of little rules that people have trouble keeping track of, including people who spend a lot of time on it, like me," Mr. Anchia said.