in Houston, Texas

Texas state senators travel in style; taxpayer money used for luxury hotels, private planes

Thursday, Nov 05, 2009, 10:16AM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal

palmtreeA $3,000, seven-day junket in Maui, staying at a resort boasting a spa that "sets a new standard for head-to-toe pampering in paradise."

Overnight stays at a Ritz-Carlton in New York, a luxury hotel on Manhattan's waterfront.

Charter plane trips within Texas for as much as $5,100 a pop.

State senators spent taxpayer money on these travel expenses. And they're all perfectly within the rules regulating Senate travel --- rules the senators write themselves.

The bills range from daily stipend claims and car mileage reimbursement to flights and hotel stays for conferences in Chicago, Washington and New Orleans. The expense reports, receipts and bills from Jan. 1, 2008 to May 1, 2009 also reveal the extent to which senators used private and charter planes to get around. Click here to see a searchable database of all the expenses, which was requested under the Texas Public Information Act.

Aloha, Sen. Mario Gallegos

Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, billed state taxpayers $2,945 for a seven-day junket last fall in Maui, Hawaii. He also took his wife and son.

Gallegos was attending a November 2008 conference put on by the Pacific Policy Research Foundation and held at the Fairmont Kea Lani hotel, where guests can go snorkeling or scuba-diving, dine on lobster tempura, and get a massage or a “body experience," the hotel Web site says.

The sole function of the group is to put on the annual policy conference, according to the foundation's federal tax returns. The Folsom, Calif., group is headed by a former California Republican state assemblyman.

GallegosGallegos’ wife, Theresa, and son, Mario Elias, also made the trip, his Continental travel itinerary shows. And someone else in the party took advantage of the luxury services, getting a “classic pedicure” and a “lip tint” during the stay at a cost of $193.13, hotel bills show.

Gallegos did not seek reimbursement for his family members' travel expenses. He asked the state to pay $1,679.58 of his $1,919.27 hotel bill.

But the fact that he brought his family raises questions about how much of the trip was business and how much was family getaway.

"Almost every conference he goes to, he brings his wife with him. Most all legislators do that as well," said Debra Gonzales, Gallegos' legislative director. Gonzales said the trip was approved as a taxpayer expense because Gallegos was a conference presenter. She said Gallegos gave a presentation about the national presidential contest and attended sessions about about state budgets, healthcare and voting patterns in the states.

A handful of other legislators also attended the Maui conference, but Gallegos was the only one who billed taxpayers for it.

The other lawmakers either accepted the travel as a speaker's gift from the Pacific foundation or paid for the travel from campaign funds.

The Pacific group paid for Republican lawmakers Joe Driver, Troy Fraser, Burt Solomons and Larry Taylor to attend the event, according to the lawmakers' annual personal financial disclosures. In addition to travel expenses, Taylor disclosed that the group gave him and his spouse a "snorkel cruise." Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, reported receiving travel from the Pacific group and listed expenses in her campaign finance reports.

Only the finest for Sen. Rodney Ellis

Sen. Rodney Ellis chose The Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park for his stay during the National Conference of Insurance Legislators' meeting in New York in July 2008, costing taxpayers $495 per night before taxes.

It's unclear why the Houston Democrat picked the Ritz instead of the actual conference hotel, where his colleagues stayed. That was the Marriott Marquis near Times Square. Two other senators, Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, stayed there for $196 per night not counting taxes, well under half the cost of Ellis' hotel. View their travel records here and here.

Ellis' total hotel bill came to more than $1,100 for two overnight stays, noting that he stayed for two nights "at no expense to the state," according to his travel voucher.

ellis1A Texas Watchdog reporter talked with an Ellis aide on Oct. 27 about the story and e-mailed a list of questions. We followed up on Nov. 2. Ellis' staff did not respond, but if they do, we'll post their comments as an update.



> State senators spent more than $86,000 on noncommercial air travel. Senators said scheduling and the lack of commercial airports in some parts of the state necessitated using charter flights or their own private planes. On page 2.

Photo of a palm tree in Maui by flickr user rhett maxwell, used via a Creative Commons license.

Rich Novak
Monday, 11/09/2009 - 05:43PM

I think the senators should itemize the costs, along with the number of family members that go with him. When I [worked] for a company, I had to itemize all costs and had maximums to spend. In this economy they should and always do the same.

Rich Novak
Monday, 11/09/2009 - 05:49PM

When it is time to vote or vote out politicians, expenses of the senators should be posted along with how they vote. We can see whom is abusing taxpayer's money!

Jennifer Peebles
Monday, 11/09/2009 - 09:51PM


If I haven't welcomed you to the blog before now, welcome. Thanks for reading and for posting.

Take care,

Jennifer P

Tuesday, 01/19/2010 - 11:05AM

I realize these types of stories have a certain populist appeal, but for the most part I don't care. I mean, breaking news: Hotels in Manhattan are expensive! If Rodney Ellis learned something at a conference on insurance - a subject most people need help understanding - that benefits Texas premium payers by just a penny apiece it would pay for the trip many times over.

In the alternative, if he paid for it with campaign money the complaint would then be that lobbyists footed the bill, so apparently the better thing is for legislators to not ever attend educational events and have ignorant people making decisions rather than someone tainted by reimbursement for expenses at their $7,500 per year job.

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