El Pasoan gave Gov. Perry $56,000 in travel giftsBy Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau El Paso Times
AUSTIN -- El Paso businessman Paul Foster gave Gov. Rick Perry more than $56,000 in travel gifts during 2005 and 2006, making Foster the second-largest contributor in travel money to the governor, according to a report released Tuesday.
State lawmakers, including Sens. Eliot Shapleigh and Carlos Uresti and Reps. Norma Chávez, Pat Haggerty and Joe Pickett, also took trips paid for by lobbyists and campaign donors, the report stated.
Texans for Public Justice, a government watchdog group, released a report analyzing the travel expenses lobbyists and campaign donors footed on behalf of elected officials.
Though it is legal for lawmakers to accept travel gifts, Andrew Wheat, research director for the group, said the practice creates questions about what gift givers expect in return for their generosity.
"The problem is, one of the best ways to get someone to do you a favor is to do them a favor first," Wheat said.
Perry's spokesman and area lawmakers who accepted travel gifts said that the expenses were legitimate and that campaign donors and lobbyists who provide travel do not seek special treatment.
"The governor has always made policy decisions based on what he believes is in the best interest of Texans," Perry spokes man Ted Royer said. "He always has and he always will."
Lobbyists and campaign donors paid more than $205,000 for Perry's travel between January 2005 and November 2006, according to the report.
Foster, president of Western Refining, was the second-largest contributor of travel dollars to Perry during the time the report covered, spending $56,637. Danny Janecka, a Flatonia, Texas, sausage magnate, was the largest contributor, with $56,909 in travel gifts.
One of those trips was a February 2006 trip Perry took with three of his staff members and Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw to Center in East Texas and then to Washington, D.C.
Royer said Perry's general policy when it comes to travel is to use campaign dollars rather than spend taxpayers' money.
"All of his campaign contributions are fully disclosed," Royer said. "Texans are fully capable of deciding what is appropriate and what isn't."
Foster, who is on two powerful state boards to which he was appointed by Perry, could not be reached for comment.
J. Robert Brown, president of Desert Eagle Distributing, who, the report shows, gave Perry about $5,000 for air travel in 2006, said he considered the travel gift like any other campaign contribution he would make.
"It certainly hasn't provided me any additional access" to the governor, said Brown, whom Perry appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.
Wheat said Texas lawmakers should follow the example of Congress and outlaw lobby-funded travel. He also said lawmakers should clarify how they report travel expenses and provide more detail about those with whom they travel.
"It's just not clear there's an overwhelming need for politicians to be taking these kind of handouts," Wheat said, "and if they do they shouldn't be ashamed to provide detailed disclosure of who went where when with whom."
Sen. Uresti accepted more than $4,700 from a lobbyist and campaign donors in 2005 and 2006. Most of those trips came during his campaign last year.
Traveling the vast district that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, he said, would be impossible without help from campaign donors. Those trips, he said, were made on far-from-luxurious two-seater planes.
"I'm not on a fancy plane," he said. "There was no one with me -- just me and the pilot."
Sen. Shapleigh said the $500 campaign donors contributed for travel weren't trips he took. One was for a campaign consultant to film a commercial, and another was for a band that traveled to El Paso for get-out-the-vote efforts.
He said voter mistrust in politicians would be better addressed with limits on campaign contributions to Texas candidates.
A lobbyist paid for Rep. Pickett's 2005 trip to a posh Arizona hotel for a conference of Texas Council of Engineering Companies.
Pickett said that he was a speaker at the conference and that he hasn't carried any legislation for the engineering companies.
Most trips like that, Pickett said, he pays for himself.
He rejected a suggestion from the watchdog group that lawmakers should use state planes for travel.
"It would look like it was more of a corporate special thing," he said, "and it would also come out direct tax dollars."