Graduation party for state Rep. Norma Chavez was paid forBy Brandi Grissom
El Paso Times
July 15, 2009
EL PASO -- Seventeen lobbyists paid more than $3,500 for an elaborate graduation party for state Rep. Norma Chávez in Austin.
Though it is legal -- and not unusual -- for lobbyists to host parties for lawmakers and ply them with food, drinks and gifts, Capitol watchdog groups said the party for Chávez took the practice to a different and more personal level. And, they said, it raised questions about whether Chávez would feel indebted to lobbyists who would later seek her vote.
Claudia Russell, a lobbyist for El Paso County, said she was one of the lobbyists who sponsored Chávez's party in May. She said she put in about $150 after Chávez's staff requested a contribution.
"I don't know if I wanted to," Russell said. "I just kinda felt it was my duty to."
But, she said, the request was not out of the ordinary. Russell said lobbyists often help throw birthday parties for lawmakers, some that are extravagant nighttime affairs with DJs at downtown Austin clubs.
"Honestly, it didn't strike me as unusual," she said.
Chávez walked across the stage at the University of Texas at Austin this spring and received her bachelor's degree in government, an achievement 25 years in the making.
"She made a big darn deal out of it as one of the highlights of her life, so those that contributed are going to be on her good buddies' list," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen in Texas.
Dozens of professors, lawmakers, Capitol staffers and even some of Chávez's classmates celebrated her graduation at a reception. The event came complete with a Longhorn ice sculpture, mariachis, a barbecue lunch and cake.
Lobbyists paid $3,529 for the shindig, according to information Chávez provided to the El Paso Times. She declined to identify the lobbyists who sponsored the party.
By law, lobbyists often are required to report their spending on lawmakers to the Texas Ethics Commission. But because the cost of Chávez's party was split among numerous lobbyists and because a number of lawmakers attended the event, no itemized reporting of the expenditures was required.
Chávez also said she spent about $1,600 of her own money, mostly to pay for lodging and transportation costs for her family from El Paso to attend.
She said the lobbyists' generosity would not affect her vote on any issues that might come before her as a lawmaker.
"In 13 years of service, I've made great friends with members of the Legislature, staff and with lobbyists," Chávez said. "Many of them came together to support me, and they said, 'How can we help?' "
The graduation party, she said, was no different from any other lunch, reception or birthday event that lobbyists often host for lawmakers.
For Chávez, though, her graduation was a momentous occasion. She often spoke with lawmakers and reporters about her classes and about how much the accomplishment meant to her. House Speaker Joe Straus filed a resolution in her honor. And in a rare speech on the House dais, Chávez said she hoped to become an example to others who had abandoned higher education in their youth to return to school.
"We were shouting it from the rooftops" she said.
Mike Higgins, a lobbyist for the State Association of Firefighters, would not say how much he contributed for Chávez's party. He said he chipped in because she has been a friend to firefighters.
Higgins said he also admired Chávez's achievement, finishing a bachelor's degree at age 48.
"We have such a long relationship with Norma, I feel like it's something we did as a friend," he said.
The personal nature of Chávez's graduation party, though, creates a larger perception of indebtedness than an expensive lunch or a big birthday party, said Smith with Public Citizen.
Chávez drew a great deal of attention to her graduation during the legislative session, and she invited more than 100 lawmakers, lobbyists and others to her party.
"When lobbyists who are seeking favors from legislators pay for a party for somebody's personal triumph like a graduation, then you're going to get a big debt of gratitude from that legislator," Smith said.
Ethics laws in Texas, he said, should be changed to prohibit lobbyists from buying meals and gifts and subsidizing entertainment for lawmakers.
Andrew Wheat, research director with the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, said human nature causes people to feel obligated to reciprocate favors, and that is a dangerous situation when it comes to the relationships between powerful lawmakers and lobbyists.
"It might have been far more in the public interest to scale back the size of the party," Wheat said. "People graduate all the time without lobbyists paying for ice sculptures at their graduation parties."
Brandi Grissom may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 512-479-6606.