El Paso Times: Eliot Shapleigh says deals with wife OK by law
By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
EL PASO TIMES
AUSTIN -- After a report this weekend raised questions about the ethics of his campaign spending, state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh said Monday the business arrangements he has with his wife are perfectly legal.
"That's what the law permits, and that's what we do," Shapleigh said.
The Associated Press reported that some lawmakers, including Shapleigh, continue mixing family business and campaign money despite laws meant to keep officeholders and candidates from using those dollars to enrich themselves.
"By paying a spouse or immediate family member for campaign services, it raises questions," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Austin-based political watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
Shapleigh said that he is following the law and that the real problem with Texas campaigns is that rich donors can funnel millions into candidates' coffers.
A new law prohibits candidates and legislators from paying rent to their spouses for property they already own. But some, including Shapleigh, have other business arrangements that keep family members and their businesses on the campaign books.
Shapleigh paid 701 N. St. Vrain Joint Venture, which his wife owns, more than $22,000 from his campaign account from July 2005 through June 2008, according to Texas Ethics Commission reports.
Until last year, Shapleigh paid monthly rent for his campaign space, which is close to his law office.
"We did that for convenience," he said.
When legislators changed the law -- after controversy stirred by reports of some legislators paying thousands in rent to their spouses for real estate they already owned -- Shapleigh said he stopped paying rent to his wife.
Instead, he reimburses the company for paper, telephone and Internet service, and other campaign-related expenses.
Since July 2007, Shapleigh has paid reimbursements totaling more than $2,400.
The law allows legislators to pay back their own businesses or those of their family members, as long as no profit is gained.
But the law also requires reporting of any gifts of value the campaign receives.
Shapleigh has not reported the campaign space as an in-kind contribution since he stopped paying rent, and he said he doesn't need to.
"I don't think the law was ever intended to say if you run your campaign from your home or office, you're barred from doing that. The law was intended to say you couldn't pay yourself," Shapleigh said.
Running his campaign and state Senate office, he said, has hardly been lucrative.
"The job doesn't pay even one-tenth of what it costs to have it," he said.
The focus on his comparatively minor campaign spending, he said, misses the heart of problems with Texas election laws.
The biggest issue, he said, is that rich donors can and often do give millions to candidates, essentially attempting to buy access to lawmakers.
"The issues in Texas are so vast I would start with limiting the amount any one donor can give," he said.
Shapleigh seems to be within the law to repay his wife for campaign expenses, Public Justice's McDonald said, but he might be better off not doing campaign business with family.
"What (the law) is trying to avoid is the perception or reality that campaign donors are helping to put money in you or your family's personal pocket," he said.
And, he said, Shapleigh may need to report use of the campaign office as a gift from his wife.
"If you're receiving anything of value to your campaign," he said, "it needs to be reported."
Brandi Grissom may be reached at email@example.com;512-479-6606.