Spending of campaign cash veiledHarris County commissioners may be violating disclosure laws, documents show
By CHASE DAVIS
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Dec. 2, 2007
With their war chests swelling and challengers nowhere to be found, the five members of Harris County Commissioners Court have spent more than $2.3 million in campaign cash the past two years on everything from charitable donations to clothing and rare books.
In doing so, some may have run afoul of state laws designed to make their campaign spending transparent to their constituents, according to experts and a Houston Chronicle review of Texas Ethics Commission complaints since 1992.
In filings dating to January 2006, several commissioners, most notably Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole, disclosed some campaign expenses in ways similar to those that have led to fines for other Texas politicians. For example:
- Hundreds of campaign expenses, particularly Eversole's, were labeled with vague descriptions such as "public relations" and "misc."--sweeping designations that encompass everything from meals to purchases at boutique gift shops and typically offer little clues as to what was purchased or who benefited from those purchases.
- Dozens of reimbursements made to office workers from several commissioners' campaigns, most frequently Radack's, did not detail the purpose of those payments.
- Radack, commissioner of Precinct 3, omitted the addresses of hundreds of expense payees until mid-2006. He has begun including that information on recent filings, but his old reports still do not include addresses, which are required by law.
The Texas Ethics Commission enforces those rules but only acts when it receives a sworn complaint. No Harris County commissioner has faced a substantiated complaint while in office in at least 15 years, according to records.
"The disclosure laws in Texas are built largely on transparency," said Tim Sorrells, deputy general counsel for the ethics commission. "They're designed so people can look at the reports and be able to ascertain what's going on."
Trip under investigation
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole, who has by far outspent the other commissioners over the past two years, has used vague classifications most often. Among the expenses he has labeled as "public relations" or "misc.": scores of trips to coffee shops and restaurants; several expenses to gunmaker Beretta USA Corp.; and $292 spent at Foot Locker.
Also among his "public relations" expenses is a $6,850 trip to Florida. District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said earlier this week that his office is investigating the Florida trip.
The ethics commission has found in several cases that similarly obscure classifications violated state disclosure laws. A ruling against state Sen. Mario Gallegos in June, for example, found that descriptions such as "contract services," "services and expenses" and "services" were insufficiently clear. He faced $8,600 in fines for those and other violations.
Eversole, who said he has "never looked at one of my campaign reports," said he does not believe his filings have to specify the items purchased with campaign cash. Many expenditures fit under the rubric "public relations," he said, so that's how his bookkeepers classify them.
"When the law says we have to state what an expense went for, I'll follow the letter of the law," he said.
In addition to vague disclosure, several commissioners have reported reimbursements to their campaign workers without specifying what those repayments were for--omissions experts say could be used to hide the true purpose of campaign spending.
Radack has left out reimbursement details the most often, regularly repaying thousands of dollars to staff members and not describing what the money was used to buy.
"That's contrary to law and ought to be prohibited," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Austin-based Texans for Public Justice, which studies Texas campaigns. "Those (expenses) should be broken down and itemized."
Radack said he did not realize his reimbursements were reported incorrectly, calling the state's ethics laws and disclosure requirements confusing. "No one has ever pointed out that there's a problem doing it that way. It is certainly my intent to follow the law."
Like vague expense descriptions, the misreporting of staff reimbursements is not uncommon. The ethics commission has fined numerous other politicians for similar violations, including Houston City Council member Carol Alvarado. She was fined $500 for those and other violations in 2006.
Confusion in reporting
Eversole and Radack said their omissions were unintentional, and that they meant to comply with the law. Such oversights are common, particularly in local government, said Tom "Smitty" Smith, head of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group.
"A lot of times, they just don't keep track," he said. "Local officials just aren't as used to reporting as (state officials) might have been."
Critics say obscuring campaign expenses is just part of the political game, sometimes designed to keep opponents in the dark or to wrap potentially questionable expenses in broad and defensible justifications in case they are ever challenged.
Still, McDonald said disclosure statewide has been improving, in part due to the efforts of citizens who file complaints.
But, he added, "There are still a lot of gray areas where a citizen can't tell what the expenditures are for."