Day after day this past summer people all over Texas heard the voice and saw the face of Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples promoting a little known federal summer lunch program for low-income children.
The barrage of Staples ads, paid for with $80,000 in federal tax dollars, was a tremendous success according to the Texas Association of Broadcasters, which served as a partner in the advertising with the Department of Agriculture. The summer nutrition program served a record 19 million meals in 2009, a 6.7 percent increase over the 17.8 million meals served the year before, according to Bryan Black, the department's assistant commissioner for communications.
Black said Staples is planning an equally aggressive promotion of the summer lunch program for this summer.
The problem for one liberal advocacy group and two of the Democrats running against him is this: Do the ads give an unfair advantage for the Republican Staples to be a guest in the homes of tens of thousands of Texans every day for three of the months leading up to the November election? Staples is running for a second four-year term in one of the state's top elected offices.
What's more, his opponents are complaining that Staples, a conservative who has regularly taken an anti-Washington stand alongside Gov. Rick Perry, is hypocritical for choosing to be the face of a program whose substance and promotion come from tax dollars dispensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"He is taking advantage of federal tax dollars that would be better spent feeding kids in the summertime," Hank Gilbert, (pictured at left) one of the Democrats running in the March primary and a staunch supporter of the federal school nutrition program in Texas. "We certainly will be talking about this as a campaign issue. I wish we could get legislation passed to prevent agency heads from doing this altogether during the election cycle."
"It is a clear abuse of taxpayer funds to prop up the political fortunes of Todd Staples," said Jason Stanford, a spokesman for the Texans for Kinky committee that supports Kinky Friedman (pictured at right), the other Democratic candidate for commissioner. "Don't get me wrong, this is a worthy program, but it would be shameless to run them during the summer of an election year. And intellectually and morally indefensible to pay for them with tax money."
Texas Watchdog asked Staples for an interview to discuss the summer lunch program, and he agreed to such. One question was whether he had concerns that his ads for the lunch program would cause public confusion or draw criticism from political opponents. After several follow-up e-mails, Staples this week canceled, citing scheduling difficulties.
Black responded on Staples' behalf in writing to questions about the program. Black said the department's legal department is looking into the legality of Staples doing ads in an election cycle.
Both the state Ethics Commission and the Attorney General's office could find no laws prohibiting those kinds of ads. An agency is only prohibited from publishing information about the activities of the agency during a 120-day-period before an election involving the agency head.
Nothing about the ads is overtly political, even though Staples stars in them, said Sherri Greenberg, a lecturer in government at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. The ads are even laudable, given the goal of raising awareness of a program to feed kids, she said. But they could be seen by some as a political gambit.
"This is tricky because it's a judgment call," Greenberg said. "Elected officials make judgment calls all the time. There is nothing illegal about this. It's up to the official to make the judgment."
ADS CALLED SUCCESSFUL, BUT UNUSUAL
In his administrator's statement to the legislature in August 2008 setting out the Department of Agriculture budget for 2010-11, Staples listed the Summer Food Service Program among his priorities. The $35.1 million spent for the program this past year represents 10 percent of the overall Food and Nutrition program for 2010, which, in turn, makes up almost 80 percent of the Department of Agriculture's $443 million budget for this fiscal year.
Out of that $35.1 million for Summer Food Service the Department of Agriculture spent $3.9 million of it on administrative costs, including promotion and advertising. The department did not provide a breakdown the budget for advertising. However, Oscar Rodriguez, vice president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, said the agriculture department paid $80,000 for the series of spots featuring Staples that ran throughout the summer of 2009.
Because these ads touted a government program and were to air during the slower summer months, Rodriquez said the association was able to broker from stations 10 times the amount of air time, meaning 10 times the number of Staples appearances the Department of Agriculture would have gotten for its $80,000.
While he didn't have a breakdown of where and how many times the Staples ads ran, Rodriguez said Staples got at least three times the amount of air time the Texas Association of Broadcasters usually guarantees a partner promoting a charity or government outreach.
"I will tell you it was statewide and it was all summer," Rodriguez said. "I recall (state agriculture officials) were extremely pleased. They said they had served more meals in the summer than they had ever done."
Successful, but quite unusual. Rodriguez said he had almost never seen a high-ranking agency head to do the ads himself. State Comptroller Susan Combs, who preceded Staples as agriculture commissioner, said she never served as a spokesperson for one of her programs, nor could she remember a previous commissioner doing it. The heads of the state food programs in Oklahoma and Arkansas said they have not done ads for their programs.
Andy Wilson, a researcher specializing in campaign finance issues for the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen, said the appearance of Staples himself in the ads raises ethical questions that get sharper at a time when Staples is trying to be re-elected. While the ads have no blatant political message, they offer considerable name recognition in places where voters don't even know the name of their own state representative, Wilson said.
"If we're feeding poor kids I want the state of Texas to get every federal tax dollar they can for it," Wilson said. "But Todd Staples doesn't need to be in those ads. I have real ethical issues with it."
Contact Mark Lisheron at firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-980-9777.
Photo of a school lunch by flickr user bookgrl, used via a Creative Commons license.
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