in Houston, Texas
campaign finance
Texas Ethics Commission fines treasurer of Waste Control Specialists PAC
Wednesday, Jan 02, 2013, 11:10AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas state Capitol

Ten months after a complaint was filed, the Texas Ethics Commission fined William Lindquist $6,450 for illegally accepting political contributions as treasurer of a political action committee for Waste Control Specialists.

The Commission ruled Lindquist accepted on behalf of WCS-Texas Solution PAC a donation of $100,100 from Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons Sept. 21, 2011, before the political action committee had gotten donations from at least 10 other people, a violation of state ethics law.

The Commission announced its ruling today after issuing its order on Dec. 20, having met to hear the case Nov. 29.

Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, filed his complaint against WCS-Texas Solution on Feb. 21, 2012. When brought to his attention several days later by Texas Tribune, Lindquist called the mistake an oversight, took responsibility for it and said he intended to ask 18 elected officials to return donations totalling roughly $64,500.

According to Ethics Commission records, WCS-Texas Solution recalled the donations in March.

The size of the fine and the unwilingness of anyone involved in the donating to admit wrongdoing to the Ethics Commission disappointed McDonald.

"The fine should have been the $65,000 that was illegally contributed," McDonald told Texas Watchdog this morning. "This looks more like a 10 percent nuisance tax on Mr. Simmons."

McDonald said he would be following up to see if the 18 elected officials who received donations had returned the money.

"Let's hope this group handles nuclear waste better than it does Texas ethics law," McDonald said.

Those receiving donations between October 8, 2011, and December 13, 2011 were state senators, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo; and state representatives, Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton; Dan Branch, R-Dallas; Cindy Burkett, R-Mesquite; Byron Cook, R-Corsicana; Myra Crownover, R-Lake Dallas; Drew Darby, R-San Angelo; Jessica Farrar, D-Houston; John Frullo, R-Lubbock; Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, R-Mauriceville; Kelly Hancock, R-Fort Worth; Patricia Harless, R-Spring; Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi; Sid Miller, R-Stephenville; Wayne Smith, R-Baytown; and Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.

Editor's Note: This post was updated at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 2 to include comments from McDonald and the detail of the committee recalling the donations.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Bexar County to post campaign finance reports online
Wednesday, Nov 14, 2012, 11:38AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
mouse

‘Bout time, Bexar County.

Beginning with the Jan. 15, 2013, filings, taxpayers in San Antonio and the rest of the county will be able to use their computers to review campaign finance reports required by law for every one of their elected officials and candidates for office, the San Antonio Express News reports.

This leaves Tarrant County alone among the state’s five most populous counties in not providing comprehensive campaign information available online. Harris County, Dallas County, and Travis County have their own search engines.

Tarrant County continues to invite you to visit their County Elections Center in downtown Fort Worth.

Taxpayers statewide can search for campaign finance and lobbying reporting for officials and operatives at the state level at the Texas Ethics Commission site.

When completed, the Bexar County Elections Department system will provide the latest campaign finance report filings and begin scanning in all past filings, Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen told the Express News.

At first, the reports will simply be scanned into the system and more reports added. A searchable database will be created, although Callanen wasn’t sure how long that might take.

This online disclosure was brought to you by the Bexar County Commissioners Court, which voted Tuesday night to create the online reporting system. A similar effort in 2008 was undermined and defeated by quiet opposition from several elected officials.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Special districts, special favors: An insider network of favors surrounds these proliferating governments in Texas
Monday, Oct 29, 2012, 09:13AM CST
By Steve Miller
money

For decades, Texans have relied on special districts for services that local municipalities can’t provide. Water to an isolated settlement. Crime prevention in a region that can’t afford full-service cops. Flood control in susceptible areas.

But the web of special districts is at times marked by self-dealing and relationships greased with campaign cash, which passes from the firms and developers who make a living off the districts to the lawmakers who authorize them.

These deals result in government that is not always for the people by the people, but instead is driven by special interests --- lawyers, lobbyists, and management firms --- that make huge profits on the backs of residents.

For example:

  • A consultancy for special districts, Municipal Accounts and Consulting, is owned by attorney Joe Schwartz, whose law firm Schwartz Page & Harding handles the elections and management of several special districts, which give their business to Municipal Accounts.

Schwartz’s office said he sold the limited partnership to Mark Burton, a certified public accountant who was the registered agent of the operation when it began in 2002. Texas Watchdog was unable to locate any state records confirming the sale. The company has an address of 1300 Post Oak Blvd, Suite 1600, in Houston. Schwartz’s law firm occupies the 14th floor.

In 2007, Huffines Communities landed the big fish in the form of Viridian Municipal Management District, which sold bonds for millions of dollars in roads and infrastructure and has broad taxing powers to build everything from playgrounds and amphitheaters to signs and monuments.

The legislation creating the district was sponsored by state Rep. Paula Hightower Pierson, D-Arlington, in April 2007. Eight months later, Hightower-Pierson received a campaign donation of $5,000 from Robert Kempel, president of Huffines, the first of three donations he would make to her through 2010. One fawning story pegs the total public “contribution” at $337 million, “if all goes as planned.”

  • In late 2006, state Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, received campaign donations of $500 each from Hawes Hill Calderon and Allen Boone Humphries Robinson. Four months later, in March 2007, Vo and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, carried a bill creating the International Management District, which would become a client for both firms. Hawes Hill manages the district, and Allen Boone is a mega law and lobbying firm which handles legal affairs for districts across the state including International.

After the 2007 session, Vo received additional donations, $2,500 in August from Hawes Hill and $500 in September from Allen Boone.

Vo has since received one donation from Hawes Hill, $1,000 in May.

Perhaps even more cozy is the building on Bellaire in Houston that houses the offices of the International Management District; records show that it is owned by ERA Investment, a company registered in 1997 by Vo and his wife, Kathy.

David HawesDavid Hawes

David Hawes, of Hawes Hill Calderon, said the space for the district is donated by Vo, saving the district the $600 a month it was previously paying in rent.

The building was purchased in 2004 by Vo’s company although his financial disclosure for 2007 does not state his interest in the building at 11360 Bellaire. Vo did not return a call asking for a comment.

One of the largest district management firms in the state, Hawes Hill Calderon has been a major player in the explosion of special districts in the state. The Houston-based firm is an efficient and effective team of professionals, handling everything from security to graffiti removal for businesses often located in tough neighborhoods.

“Cities do what they can, but they can’t do everything,” Hawes said. “If I can provide security to drive into these district centers and help, it’s a service to the commercial community.”

Hawes said that in one district, they were able to cut burglaries of businesses by up to 70 percent in a given period.

For graffiti abatement, the city often cites a business if it does not clean up the spray paint in a given time period.

“As a business owner, if you have someone managing the removal, you avoid a fine.”

At the same time, Hawes Hill has contributed to the campaign funds of lawmakers and elected officials who authorize the districts.

“It’s become a cottage industry. There are people making their entire living off these special districts,” said Martha Wong, a former Republican state lawmaker from Houston.

She pointed to Hawes Hill, which wanted her to support a special district in the Montrose area to provide extra publicly-funded services such as police patrol and litter pickup.

“They wanted to me introduce legislation for their management district, but I found out there was a big resistance to it,” Wong said. “My goal was to have 75 percent of the landowners approve it and to make sure every land owner in that area was notified.”

Martha WongMartha Wong

Wong refused to carry the bill because of the overwhelming opposition.

“When you work it out and the neighborhood agrees, I’ll carry it,” Wong recalled telling the district organizers.

The organizers got a more sympathetic hearing from Ellen Cohen, Wong’s successor in the House, who sponsored the bill creating the Montrose Management District in 2009.

Today, that district is being sued by landowners who claim they submitted a lawful petition to dissolve the district’s mayor-approved board, but the board denied the petition’s validity.

Wong said special districts are “good for specific projects, but that’s all they really need to be used for.”

Yet the districts continue to bill residents and business owners for web services, landscaping, advertising; it’s a potpourri of services that often border on questionable, like the branded jump ropes the folks in Brays Oaks Management District ponied up for last year.

Residents of Brays Oaks in June 2011 also paid $5,000 down on the  $20,000 lobbying bill for Allen Boone Humphries during the legislative session.

The number of lobbyists for special districts exploded in the early 2000s, jumping from 412 in 1999 to 2,271 in 2004. The number has since fallen, to 610 in 2012.

Trey Lary, uber-lobbyist to special districts and a lawyer with Allen Boone Humphries, received between $50,000 and $99,999.99 for his services to Hawes Hill Calderon in 2005, records show. Three other Allen Boone lawyers worked for Hawes Hill that year, including Joe Allen. All made in the $50,000 to $99,999.99 range.

That year the Legislature created the Greater Sharpstown Management District. The contract to manage it went to Hawes Hill.

Hawes, himself a lobbyist, in 2009 represented the Harris County Improvement District #10B and Harris County Improvement District #6 -- later known as the Five Corners and Montrose management districts -- as well as some investment groups.

Hawes also lobbied for INCAP Financial Group, which was in the final stages of creating the Dallas North Oak Cliff Municipal Management District in Dallas. Hawes Hill is the manager of that district.

Right now, there are lobbyists working on special district issues for the upcoming session, which begins in January.

Jody Richardson, a veteran lobbyist with Allen Boone Humphries, has helped create special districts since 1982. She has spent time every month this year since February lobbying for special districts, according to her filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.

special district webs of influence

She attributes the increase in special districts in Texas, up 25 percent in the last 30 years, to land development becoming more “sophisticated.”

“The consuming public wants stuff,” Richardson said. “They don’t just want a house. They want a house in a master planned community, with hike-and-bike trails and amenities. All of that costs the developers money. And they need to put them in place to attract homebuyers.”

As far as the campaign donations from district firms to lawmakers, Richardson said looking at it as trading favors is “simplistic.”

“The reason those lawmakers carry those bills is because that land is in their district,” she said. “If you think a senator or a representative is going to sell his soul for $500 or $1,000 or $2,000, then you must not respect your government very much.”

Richardson sees only a “network of specialists” that cater to the needs of a demanding district system, businesses that are filling a market demand.

Phillip Savoy, of Austin-based Murfee Engineering Co., said in a hearing regarding districts last year that his group has “built an entire engineering business on putting together the process to create these districts. We have found a mechanism to allow communities to expand their infrastructure. Without putting the tax burden on the whole community, it goes to the people who live in the [municipal utility district].”

* * *

Perhaps the granddaddy of special district largesse is state. Rep. Jim Murphy, who earns a six-figure salary to manage Westchase District in Houston. His deal as general manager calls for a monthly fee of $22,491 in addition to other payments for consultancy and an upfront payment of $7,711.

He was first elected to the statehouse in 2006, a Republican from the Houston area and the owner of District Management Services, a sort of one-stop company that manages the affairs of special districts much the same way as Hawes Hill.

But instead of relying on lobbyists to advocate for Westchase, Murphy, who was voted out in 2008, handled the job himself.

In April 2009, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, carried a bill to give broader powers to Westchase, such as the ability to receive money from tax increment finance zones. It authorized the board of the district to change the number of voting directors, “provided the board determines that the change is in the best interest of the district.”

It also gave the district broader powers to tax for services, including infrastructure.

When it came time to hear testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, there was one witness to testify for the bill: Jim Murphy, who was now a registered lobbyist for special districts and authorities. The bill was signed by the governor in June 2009.

Murphy was re-elected in 2010. In April, as Murphy struggled to retain his seat in the primary against challenger Ann Witt, the district became an issue.

The Witt campaign unveiled a web site and sent out a mailer outlining the numerous Westchase contracts handed out to Murphy donors, including Rehak Creative Services, whose owner, Robert Rehak, has donated at least  $7,000 to Murphy’s campaigns since 2005.

Other contract-holding contributors include Phonoscope, BMS Management and Brown & Gay Engineers.

“Double Dipping. Skirting the Law. Bilking Taxpayers. Rewarding Cronies,” a banner at the bottom of one page of the mailer claimed in fairly standard attack ad format.

Murphy did not return a call for comment.

Rehak sued Witt for defamation, claiming Witt’s connecting of dots constituted an unlawful act. A district court judge in Harris County quickly dismissed the case, granting attorney’s fees to Witt. The decision is on appeal.

Witt’s daughter, Ellen Witt, was managing the campaign and felt she had found a wedge issue that would boost her mother’s chances of winning.

It didn’t work. Ann Witt lost 59 percent to 41 percent.

***

Ellen Witt, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel in the Office of the Attorney General of Texas, feels people aren’t aware of the power of special districts.

The districts often do a poor job of posting their public meetings, she said, and usually use a .com URL rather than the .gov that is used with other taxpayer-funded operations.

For example, for a district outside Denton, public meeting notices are posted to a fence post.

“People don’t understand that these are government entities,” Witt said. “For people to hold government accountable, they need to know that a group is a government entity to begin with. Many of these are operating under the radar. And they don’t seem to want the public to know they exist.”

Indeed, even though taxpayers in a municipal utility district in North Texas had paid off the district’s debt in 2010, the board continued to meet and tax residents. It took a court order and an election to undo the district, which, as far as some residents were concerned, had done nothing to let the public know of its existence.

“We had no idea there was a board that met every month,” said Mary Arceneaux, a resident of the district in Corinth, near Denton. “They had meetings, they were spending our money, they had elections, and we never did find out. That’s how they kept the same people in there on the board for 15 to 20 years.”

Most legislation creating districts names the initial board members. Those members sometimes remain in place for years due to a power structure that can leave little room for new voices.

In the Montrose Management District, two-thirds of the board members are donors or supporters of Mayor Annise Parker, who presides over the City Council, which in turn approves board members.

Once the districts are created, they’re hard to rein in.

Not even the governor could stop a move in 2007 to change the power structure of the Buffalo Bayou district in Houston. Democratic state reps. Garnet Coleman and Ellen Cohen co-authored legislation that reduced the number of board members from 31 to 9. The measure passed, but Gov. Perry vetoed it, pointing out that the amendment would not only decrease the number of board members but also name nine directors “without the approval of the local governing body.” Today, the board has nine members, anyway; three of those named in the vetoed legislation are among them. The other 22 spots are left vacant.

Over the years, lawmakers have reviewed internal, mostly academic reports on special districts that have confirmed their majority view that districts are a good thing. The most this 2002 Senate committee report could muster is that “there was not adequate oversight regarding certain activities by certain special districts … specifically, the ability to divide or convert to another type of district.”

critical, geeky analysis in 2007 from Fordham Law Review offered a candid look at the problems of districts.

This 2008 assessment by the Texas Senate Research Center offers a dry, academic look at districts, posing few questions but conceding they are an “invisible” layer of government.

A 2001 series in the Dallas Morning News, Government by Developer, exposed a number of questionable elements of the districts. Among them: The moving of money between developers and the lawmakers that author bills creating districts, the relationship between lawyers, lawmakers and developers and the practice of hiring voters to elect a board that suits the power structure of the district.

All three strategies are still rampant. For the third, one need only look as recently as 2010, when a 30-something entrepreneur, Alan John Lesselyong, moved into a FEMA trailer to elect officers and approve $400 million in bonds for a Denton County district.

Lesselyong was the sole voter in the district. He was de facto election judge, from the polling place set up behind the trailer.

Legislators have vowed to look into possible problems with the system of special districts, but so far, done nothing.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, claimed in 2010 that the voter residency laws were “something that needs to be looked at.” Addressing residency laws could make it more difficult for some districts to be assembled.

But when pressed last month about it, Bonnen said he was going to be busy with other things in the upcoming session.

State Sen. Jane Nelson in 2011 tried to convince her colleagues to address the hiring of voters for special districts, giving a half-hearted plea in a hearing.

In 2001, though, Nelson, R-Flower Mound, had co-authored a bill creating the Frisco Square Management District in what has become one of the ritziest of north Dallas suburbs.

Nelson declined to speak to Texas Watchdog.

Susan CombsSusan Combs

State Comptroller Susan Combs, eyeing a higher office bid and with great fanfare, recently announcednew web site that allows residents to track the taxing entities in and around their area, including districts. The site was applauded by the conservative Americans For Prosperity group.

Combs considered in March lobbying for a moratorium on the creation of special districts, although she has little jurisdiction in that regard. Nonetheless, she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last month that she now favors a more political - albeit likely results-free - path of talking with lawmakers.

Combs declined to talk with Texas Watchdog.

Wong, the former state legislator from Houston, said the whole special district process needs to be addressed in the legislature. “People have tweaked the rules” over the last few years, making it easier to create districts.

Austin is the only place that can change the situation that some feel has gotten out of hand, making taxpayers pony up millions that used to be part of the risk taken by an entrepreneur, a developer, even a lawyer.

“Legislators need to do a better job of letting people know that these are government entities,” added Ellen Witt, the former AG’s office lawyer. “I don’t know why more people haven’t raised this issue with their representatives. “

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Houston teachers’ union president Gayle Fallon fined $5,000 by Texas Ethics Commission; Fallon: Cheaper to pay fine than lawyer
Tuesday, Oct 02, 2012, 03:29PM CST
By Curt Olson
Gayle Fallon

The Texas Ethics Commission has fined Houston teachers’ union leader Gayle Fallon $5,000 for campaign finance reporting violations, including almost $40,000 in credit card expenses that were not properly detailed.

The 10-page ruling focused on allegations regarding campaign finance reports submitted from 2009 to 2011 by the Houston Federation of Teachers Committee on Political Education (COPE). Fallon is president of the union and serves as committee treasurer.

The most significant allegations, that Fallon failed to pinpoint tens of thousands of dollars in expenses paid by credit card, were found by the commission to be true. State law requires reporting of the actual vendor being paid, rather than just the credit card company.

“Regarding the four political expenditures to American Express totaling approximately $38,590, the respondent did not disclose the ultimate vendors who received the payments,” the ruling states.

Fallon failed to properly document two political expenses totaling $840 in 2010, listing a last name and initials rather than a full name as required by law, and submitted three reports late. The commission dismissed the other allegations or found them to be more minor, technical errors.

Fallon said the complaint that prompted the ruling was politically motivated and emphasized that the commission rejected most of the allegations.

“It was cheaper to pay the fine than to pay the lawyer to fight the fine,” Fallon said.

Fallon also received ethics attention in 2011 when Texas Watchdog reported on $477,687 in payments from the union to her son, lawyer James Fallon III, for “legal counsel to members.”

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Gayle Fallon from Gov. Rick Perry's website.

Creative Commons License
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In sprawling Texas swing district, three Democrats vie for right to challenge Rep. Francisco ‘Quico’ Canseco
Thursday, May 24, 2012, 08:55AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
U.S. Capitol

Maverick County might just be the key to who wins the Democratic primary between John Bustamante, state Rep. Pete Gallego and former congressman Ciro Rodriguez in mammoth congressional District 23.

Gallego is the favorite. He has raised and spent at least two-and-a-half times as much money as Rodriguez, his chief rival. Gallego has secured most of the coveted endorsements, including that of Rodriguez and Bustamante’s hometown newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News.

But in Eagle Pass, the seat of Maverick County, 260 miles from Gallego’s home in Alpine, Gallego’s name and face are not as well known as Rodriguez’. Democrats here still think redistricting was responsible for Rodriguez losing his seat in Congress after two terms in 2010 to the current incumbent, Republican Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco.

This poor county where 95 percent of the 55,000 people are Hispanic has a reputation for defying the stereotype of an apathetic Hispanic electorate and sending voters to the polls when an investment in time and money produces a competitive race, Lydia Camarillo says.

Maverick County TexasMaverick County, TX

Camarillo, who has been working the district aggressively as the vice president of the non-profit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, says motivated voters will make it a close race between Gallego and Rodriguez in Maverick County.

Camarillo isn’t sure who benefits the most from a motivated districtwide Hispanic electorate. All three candidates are Hispanic. But with a heavy concentration of voters in and around Bexar County, Gallego will be forced to spread his money thinner and cover more ground for his votes,
she says.

“Maverick County has a record of turning out. In races where the candidates are solid on issues it becomes a question of turnout. I expect it to be close. I’d never underestimate either (Gallego and Rodriguez) candidate,” Camarillo says.

The political fate of the district, roughly 48,000 square miles spread out in all or parts of 29 counties from El Paso County to San Antonio, is inextricably tied to redistricting. Most of the land is Gallego territory. A third of the voters are in the San Antonio area.

Hispanic groups who sued to challenge the redrawing of the state’s congressional districts by the Legislature repeatedly used District 23 as an example of how Hispanic voters were shortchanged by Republican hubris.

Even after the challenge made it to the Supreme Court, and back to the state of Texas, the litigants were dissatisfied with a district with a population that was more than 55 percent Hispanic but a tossup between Republicans and Democrats.

“Districts 23 and 27 have been lost, possibly forever,” Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, and Luis Roberto Vera Jr., general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens wrote in an editorial in March. “The plan does create a new Latino district in Dallas-Fort Worth, but only at the detriment of all other Latinos and African-Americans in Texas. We are both proud of the creation of this new Latino district, but we believe that the cost is just too high.”

By lost, the writers were referring to political party rather than ethnic background. In 2004 after a rancorous redistricting, District 23 elected Republican Henry Bonilla. In 2006 after the lines were redrawn, voters elected Rodriguez and in 2010 they went again with a Republican, Canseco.

In each case, voters elected a Hispanic representative and each by a narrow margin.

Pete GallegoPete Gallego


In 1990, Gallego became the first Hispanic to represent state House District 74. The largest House district in the state with an area of 39,000 square miles encompasses much of the west Texas portion of District 23.

Gallego has been in the House ever since. He is currently the chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and a member of the State Affairs and General Investigating & Ethics committees.

Gallego, 50, has served as Democratic House leader and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

During his tenure, Gallego has been a reliable Democratic vote. In the last session, Gallego was outspoken on increasing funding for the state’s public schools and in opposition to the voter ID bill passed by the Legislature.

State Democratic Party leaders encouraged and supported his run for Congress. His campaign has raised more than $656,000 through May 9 and he has $83,387 remaining. This compares to Rodriguez, who raised $242,000 and has $61,074 left and Bustamante, who raised about $28,000 and has just $1,546 in his coffer.

And yet, Gallego built his reputation as a consensus builder in an overwhelmingly Republican House. If elected, Gallego would continue to work with representatives from both parties to find solutions to what seem to be intractable problems like border security, Lonny Paris, his spokesman, says.

Repeated attempts to arrange an interview with Gallego through Paris failed. In a very brief exchange, Paris said the public wants a congressman with Gallego’s temperament.

“They’re very fed up with what’s going on in Washington,” Paris says. “They want people like Rep. Gallego who can reach consensus on legislation, who can be tough, but fair.”

Ciro RodriguezCiro Rodriguez


By contrast, Rodriguez, 65, has been working the district door-to-door almost from the time the last vote in his loss to Canseco had been counted, Camarillo says. “I don’t think he ever stopped campaigning,” she says. “He wasn’t going to stay out of it.”

Often, a candidate of Rodriguez’ pedigree is a favorite in a race like this. In addition to his most recent two terms in Congress, he served as the representative of the 28th congressional district for four terms until January of 2005 after five terms in the Texas House.

Redistricting played a role in both of his losses. But given that his last loss was to the current Republican incumbent and, if anything, the new boundaries made the district a little more conservative, Democratic voters are wondering if Rodriguez is the strongest challenger to Canseco, Camarillo says.

E-mailed requests by Texas Watchdog to interview Rodriguez were not answered by his campaign officials.

According to his campaign website, Rodriguez was a supporter of stimulus money to keep American public school teachers on the job. He supported large funding increases for health care for veterans. And Rodriguez voted for appropriations to put more patrol agents on the border with Mexico.

Rodriguez voted against bailing out Wall Street, but came back to support regulatory reforms on the same industry.

Were it not for scant funding, close observers like Camarillo think a serious candidate like Bustamante could have made the Democratic primary in District 23 much more interesting.

Bustamante says eschewing big funding for his first campaign is consistent with a message he has been delivering in person in the district.

“Our representatives are not out representing people,” Bustamante said in a phone interview with Texas Watchdog. “I’ve been out in the district for the past eight months, and many of the people I’ve talked to have never even seen their representative.”

John BustamanteJohn Bustamante


Bustamante, 35, a graduate of MIT and the University of Texas School of Law, wants to make sure seniors don’t lose their major federal benefits. He’d like to see veterans get enhanced benefits.

“It doesn’t matter what your ideology, we need Medicare and Social Security for our senior citizens,” he says.

ObamaCare, he says, doesn’t need to be scrapped. It needs to be adjusted and its costs curbed. He would call for a reform of water ownership laws to protect the overall resource.

Bustamante decries funding cuts to education at all levels. He would like to create a clearer, easier path for immigrants who come to this country to become citizens. And although he isn’t sure how it might be done, Bustamante wants to get money out of politics.

“I think we can all be better working together,” Bustamante says. “This politics of the individual has gone on for at least a decade. I think a whole lot about our freedoms, but we should never lose sight of our obligation to each other and our communities.”

Bustamante’s name is a familiar one to some in the district, although Camarillo says it is likely he will not benefit from being the son of Albert Bustamante.

The elder Bustamante was a popular congressman for the 23rd District from 1985 to 1993, but in that last year he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for racketeering and taking bribes.

“If there is institutional memory of his father it is both good and bad. It’s a wash,” Camarillo says.

It is clear from his Twitter posts that Gallego intends to spend a good part of the last days before the primary in the San Antonio area. Rodriguez and Bustamante have established their intention to work the streets hard.

Invested in and competitive? Very. Now it remains to be seen whether all the effort will motivate Hispanic voters in Maverick and 28 other counties.

“I don’t see Bustamante being in the race will force a runoff,” Camarillo says. “I think it’s a clear choice, one way or the other.”

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Creative Commons License
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Could Houston ISD trustees' ethics rules go from maligned to model?
Wednesday, May 02, 2012, 02:45PM CST
By Mike Cronin
checkbook

Superintendent Terry Grier and board President Mike Lunceford are in favor of helping the Houston schools create what would be some of the strongest rules nationwide governing the relationships between trustees and campaign donors doing business with the district.

Both men said in March that Houston Independent School District officials would adopt the recommendations made by auditors who completed a four-month examination of the way the district buys goods and services.

Null-Lairson, the Houston accounting firm that conducted that audit, counseled HISD officials to develop policies that specified when and how potential vendors contribute to board-member campaigns, and when and how trustees vote on potential contracts with those vendors.

As it weighs that guidance, Houston’s school board has an opportunity to become a national model for trustee-vendor behavior. Trustees could plot a course away from the ethics controversies that have beset the district for more than a year: accusations of bribery, contract steering and conflicts of interest.

By approving the Null-Lairson proposals, HISD would exceed the standards set by Texas state law – and join the Los Angeles Unified School District as among the country’s few large school districts that identify:

  • Caps on vendors' campaign donations.
  • Timeframes for those donations.
  • When trustees may vote on contracts with vendors who have contributed to their campaigns.
  • Penalties for trustees and vendors who violate regulations.

The full board would have to approve any new policies, however. And several trustees said they wanted to explore potential paths before taking action.

Mike LuncefordMike Lunceford

“I have no problem with Null-Lairson’s recommendations. I support them,” Lunceford said. He said he would ask his fellow trustees on Thursday to approve hiring MGT of America, headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla., to write the new policies, at a cost of $25,000 to $35,000. MGT assisted with the audit.

“I want to see how other public entities deal with these issues, and MGT is supposed to be ‘expert’ in this area,” he said.

But Lunceford emphasized that he is “not determined that we have to have a specific policy.”

Trustee Greg Meyers joined Lunceford in that sentiment but said he’d be willing to discuss caps on campaign contributions with his colleagues.

“I’d like to find out what best practices are,” Meyers said. “I want to ensure we have policies that are transparent and reasonable.”

Trustee Juliet Stipeche said she respected Los Angeles schools’ ethics policies and added that she and her fellow HISD trustees “need to reform the current campaign contribution system.”

Those reforms should include “blackout periods after elections so that board members no longer receive contributions in perpetuity and limits on individual contributions,” Stipeche said.

Grier has said his staff would implement the auditors’ recommendations. Whatever the board’s ultimate stance, Grier said he is not concerned.

“I do not worry or speculate about whether our board will pass a particular policy,” Grier told Texas Watchdog in an e-mail last week. “Policy adoption is a board decision. If the board passes a policy, our administration makes sure it is followed.”

Trustees are already barred from voting on contracts for certain campaign donors doing business with the district through E-Rate, a federal program that offers U.S. schools and libraries telecommunications and Internet access at a discount.

“Board members shall not knowingly accept campaign contributions from E-Rate vendors/service providers, including related officers and/or key employees,” HISD’s E-Rate policy states. Trustees cannot vote on contracts for three years with any E-Rate vendor who has, in a year’s time, given more than $500 to the trustee’s campaign fund or done more than $2,000 in business with the trustee.

HISD officials adopted that policy in 2010 after the Federal Communications Commission accused district employees in 2006 of accepting gifts from E-Rate vendors.

Choosing a less stringent path than Los Angeles would put HISD in the same company as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Clark County (Las Vegas) School District and Dallas Independent School District, America’s fourth-, fifth- and 14th-largest school districts, respectively.

That also would align HISD with school districts throughout Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Texas. Public-schools officials in Mesa, Ariz.; Miami; Las Vegas; and Dallas told Texas Watchdog that they do not have district-level guidelines that outline when board trustees may vote on contracts with vendors who have donated to their campaigns.

HISD trustees bolstered their financial ethics policies in January. They prohibited campaign donations from any vendor bidding on a contract from 30 days prior to the solicitation for services through the contract’s execution.

The same policy also bans communication between vendors and trustees during that time period.

Trustees must also disclose relationships with potential vendors, and abstain from voting on contracts involving them, when they or immediate family members have a financial interest at stake, a policy that follows state law.

But the overseers of America’s seventh-largest school district – with an annual $1.6 billion budget and 203,000 students – have sometimes been reluctant to impose tougher guidelines on themselves. They chose in December to postpone indefinitely a vote on a more rigid ethics policy, which was aimed at curbing improper trustee influence on contracts but did not directly address the question of trustees voting on contracts with their contributors.

Board members in Los Angeles may not receive or solicit campaign contributions of more than $250 from vendors involved in a potential contract with the district from the start of a competitive-bidding process to three months after its conclusion.

The country’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles currently enrolls about 664,000 students and has a roughly $6.5 billion annual budget.

Los Angeles district trustees must recuse themselves from the process and abstain from the vote if they have received donations totaling more than $250 from an interested vendor during the year prior.

Judy NadlerJudy Nadler

Those are the kinds of ethical guidelines that please Judy Nadler, senior fellow for government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California.

“It is generally problematic for school-board members to be in any kind of relationship with vendors,” said Nadler, who also is a former Santa Clara mayor. “There are inherent conflicts.”

Even dollar and time thresholds, such as those set by the Los Angeles school district, don’t matter “because the public perception is that the trustee voted on a contract because he or she knew someone who contributed to his or her campaign or had some other type of relationship (with the vendor).”

Like Dallas public schools, HISD adheres to Texas law, which does not place caps on donations and is silent on trustees voting on contracts for vendors who contribute to campaigns.

That troubles but doesn’t surprise Nadler.

“My experience, over and over, is that school districts, in particular, are not as well scrutinized as city council members,” she said. “So it’s dangerous territory when trustees engage in these kinds of (vendor) relationships.”

Some trustees may not support any new policies regarding HISD contracts, vendors and trustee behavior. Vendors funded nearly half of incumbent trustees’ campaigns over a three-year period, Texas Watchdog found last fall.

Larry Marshall, who is the longest-serving board member with 14 years, has stated many times during public meetings since the fall that existing policies governing relationships among board members and vendors are strong enough.

He successfully led the charge to put an ethics proposal for trustees on hold in December, with the support of five other board members. The proposal had already been watered down at the urging of Marshall and Trustee Paula Harris.

Marshall did not return two calls requesting comment for this story.

Marshall also has pointed out repeatedly during public meetings that HISD trustees shouldn’t have to terminate their friendships with vendors and that ethical problems do not exist for the HISD board – at least during his tenure as a trustee.

This despite Marshall being a defendant in an ongoing civil lawsuit filed in December 2010 that accuses him of taking bribes to award a contract to one company rather than another. Marshall has said the suit is baseless.

Last year Marshall set the stage for a local doctor, Kenneth Wells, to land a no-bid consulting deal with HISD for $640,000. Due in part to questions about the deal raised by Texas Watchdog, HISD officials have put contract negotiations on hold.

The Null-Lairson audit itself came about due, in part, to heavy criticism and media attention from Texas Watchdog and others over how the district has done business in recent years.

Often school-board members don’t see their relationships with vendors as wrong, “which is worse,” Nadler said.

“If you don’t see losing your independence and perspective as bad, then what do you see as bad?”

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of checkbook by flickr user RikkisRefugeOther, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Ron Paul's painstaking campaign finance reports list numerous expenses of less than a dollar
Tuesday, Apr 03, 2012, 09:06AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
dollar tree

If his campaign expense reports are any indication, someone in the Obama administration should have put Ron Paul in charge of the $787 billion stimulus program.

The presidential candidate from Texas declares absolutely everything, ProPublica is reporting today with the kind of wide-eyed astonishment that can only come from covering the usual four flushers and scalawags in Washington D.C.

In its review of the spending of all of the candidates, $306 million in all through February, ProPublica found a general forthrightness and honesty. The Federal Election Commission requires candidates to report individual purchases of $200 or more.

With Paul they found 160 purchases of a dollar or less, 99 cents spent at a Conoco gas station, 22 cents at a FedEx. The $1.27 staffer meals, the $1.09 for office equipment at Dollar Tree, the $1 for event supplies at the Salvation Army chart a campaign that is awfully tight with a buck.

Paul evidently requires the same frugality and transparency from the political action committees supporting him. Endorse Liberty, ProPublica says, files all of its expenses within 48 hours of incurring them, including the 8 cents it reported shelling out for online advertising to Google.

"We take the trust our donors place in us very seriously and are deeply committed to transparency and accuracy in our reporting," Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign manager told ProPublica in an e-mail.

We are pretty sure the guy who takes his campaign funding this seriously, who thought having his own Secret Service detail was a form of welfare, would have passed on that stimulus job.

That no vote back in 2009 wouldn’t have helped.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Dollar Tree by flickr user kevynjacobs, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas state Rep. Joe Driver pleads guilty to double billing travel expenses, could finish out term
Wednesday, Nov 23, 2011, 09:30AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
money

Rep. Joe Driver, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to double billing thousands of dollars in travel expenses, could finish out his term if a Travis County judge accepts a prosecutor’s recommendation that his adjudication be deferred.

Prosecutors are expected to ask Judge Karen Sage on Dec. 19 to sentence Driver to probation and defer the sentence for five years, according to a story posted last night by the Austin American-Statesman. The deferral would allow Driver to complete his 10th term in office ending in 2013 and allow him to continue to vote if he observes the terms of his probation.

The plea agreement includes $63,746 in restitution and a $5,000 fine. The judge, according to the story, is not, however, bound by the recommendation.

Joe DriverJoe Driver
Driver, R-Garland, had earlier in November told prosecutors he intended to plead guilty to having for years filed duplicate travel, hotel and other expense forms for reimbursement from the state and his campaign fund.

When asked about it by a reporter in August of 2010 Driver said he was unaware that he had been doing anything wrong.

“Basically, my family and I are thankful that this has been resolved,” Driver told reporters Tuesday at the Travis County Courthouse, the Texas Tribune reported.
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of money by flickr user athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.
More digging into constable’s offices by ABC 13 turns up evidence of political raffles - illegal in TX. Want to do some digging yourself into campaign finance records?
Friday, Nov 18, 2011, 11:30AM CST
By Trent Seibert
abc

If you’ve been tuning in to ABC 13 undercover man Wayne Dolcefino’s reports on Harris County constables, you’ve seen some solid digging into how money flows into campaigns and into some of the cozy deals in constable’s offices.

In his latest report Dolcefino digs through campaign finance reports and finds some damning evidence pointing to illegal campaign activities by Harris County Precinct 7 Constable May Walker.

In short, it appears that Walker has been holding raffles to raise money for her campaign and having her officers sell tickets to those raffles.

That happens to be illegal in Texas.

In fact, just last year two Dallas County constables were indicted on campaign finance charges in connection with their use of a raffle to fill their campaign coffers.

You also can be an undercover man -- or woman.

Check out Texas Watchdog’s analysis of who’s giving to the campaigns of Houston Independent School District trustees. Or click here to see all the campaign finance reports for candidates and officials in Harris County. (Most large counties in Texas have campaign finance reports online. Just search for “campaign finance reports” and the name of the county, and the link you’re looking for will be close to the top.)

In the case of Harris County, the database is not particularly user-friendly -- you can’t conduct keyword searches in the reports, for example -- but you can scroll through the reports and see where campaign donations from local officials come from and how it is spent.

Also make sure to check out ABC 13’s interactive graphic showing how Dolcefino pieced together his stories on the Harris County constables. It gives you an idea of what some of the public records look like and what to look for.

***
Contact Trent Seibert at trent@texaswatchdog.org or 832-316-4994 or on Twitter at @trentseibert or @texaswatchdog.

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Image of ABC 13 Undercover from ABC 13 KTRK.
Interactive presentation: Vendors fund nearly half of incumbent Houston ISD trustees' campaigns
Monday, Oct 31, 2011, 06:04AM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
Stack of bills

With elections coming up next week for three positions on the Houston school board, Texas Watchdog presents an interactive package on the campaign fundraising by the nine incumbent school board members.

Our analysis of three years' worth of campaign donations shows that vendors and contractors to the Houston Independent School District gave nearly half of all contributions to the incumbents in the past three years.

Use these graphics and interactives to delve deeper into contributions by vendors, HISD employees and advocates for charter schools.

Click here to read more about who's giving to the trustees in our exclusive story today by Jennifer Peebles and Mike Cronin. And click here to see our list of the 20 biggest donors to the trustees in the past three years.

We're also publishing a spreadsheet we created of the more than 1,300 campaign contributions the nine incumbent trustees received in the past three years. See the story above for the link.


Also read our profiles of the incumbents and their challengers: School board President Paula Harris and her challenger, former HISD principal Davetta Daniels; incumbent Trustee Manuel Rodriguez and his challenger, Houston Community College administrator Ramiro Fonseca, and incumbent Trustee Juliet Stipeche and her challenger, Dorothy Olmos

Early voting in the HISD races and other local elections in the Houston area is going on now through Nov. 4.

Note: The Texas Watchdog analysis includes donations from as recently as late September -- the most recent campaign finance records available. Trustee candidates are required to disclose more recent donations on forms that must be turned in today. 

***

Contact Jennifer Peebles at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of money by flickr user amagill, used via a Creative Commons license.
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