in Houston, Texas
sheila jackson lee
Texas Congressman Ron Paul gets top mention in D.C. group’s rankings of lawmakers defending taxpayer interests
Monday, Sep 24, 2012, 12:53PM CST
By Steve Miller
money

The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste ranks Texas congressman and former presidential aspirant Ron Paul at the top of its latest list of federal lawmakers who defend taxpayer interests. Paul scores a 98 percent, bested only by two senators from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Also near the top of the list from the Texas delegation were Republicans Sen. John Cornyn (95 percent rating) and Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Pete Sessions, who both scored 91 percent ratings.

At the bottom of the list were Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee (4 percent) , Eddie Bernice Johnson (8 percent)  Silvestre Reyes (5 percent) and Charlie Gonzalez (8 percent).

The list, compiled annually by the tax watchdog group since 1989, was again much more welcoming to  Republicans than Democrats. Among the Texas Republicans scoring poorly were Kay Granger (52 percent) and Lamar Smith (56 percent).

According to the council, “the ratings separate the praiseworthy from the profligate by evaluating important tax, spending, transparency and        accountability measures.”

Charity Navigator, a group that ranks non-profits, defines the council as “a private, non-partisan organization representing more than one million members and supporters nationwide… [its] mission is to eliminate waste, mismanagement, and inefficiency in the federal government.”

The council received a decent overall review from Charity Navigator, although it ranked low on transparency with a rating of 44 out of a possible 70.

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

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Photo of money by flickr user Dan4th, used via a Creative Commons license.

Texas members of Congress dip once, twice, three times at the public trough
Friday, Aug 10, 2012, 08:04AM CST
By Steve Miller
ice cream

Of the state’s 34-member U.S. congressional delegation, 12 are taking a pension from a public retirement plan, according to financial disclosures filed by the politicians.

Among the best compensated in the pack is Republican Ted Poe, 63, a former prosecutor and judge in Harris County whose district includes Kingwood and Beaumont, who reported dual pension payments in 2011; he was paid $82,153 by Harris County and $57,229 by the Texas County and District Retirement System.

U.S. reps, many of them former state elected officials, receive a congressional salary of $174,000. They are not prohibited from taking their taxpayer-subsidized retirement while serving in Washington.

Steve Ellis, with the D.C. watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, says public pensions make elected officials that much more out-of-touch with the retirement realities of private-sector workers, whose plans are usually packaged as defined contributions to a 401(k) or IRA.

“The public derides career politicians, but that’s what a pension is generally for, rewarding someone for a career’s worth of work,” Ellis said. “At some point you have to question whether elected officials should be receiving pensions at all.”

Members of the delegation draw on a number of retirement programs established for state employees, most through the Employees Retirement System of Texas.

Cities also offer a pension plan, usually under the Texas Municipal Retirement System. Counties use the Texas County and District Retirement System. State judges, the Texas Judicial Retirement System.

All but one, the Municipal system, are tapped by at least one member of the state’s delegation.

Rep. Al Green, a Democrat from Houston and a former justice of the peace in Harris County, reported a pension payment in 2011 of $96,948 from the Texas County and District Retirement System.

John Carter, a Republican from the Austin area, served as a district judge for 20 years in Williamson County. He has received generous payments from the Texas Judicial Retirement System. According to his financial disclosure, Carter, 70, last year received a pension of $76,458 from the judicial system. Carter, who has spoken out against other forms of perceived judicial and legal abuse, has drawn a pension payment every year since taking office in 2003, totaling $693,162.

 

Other lawmakers reporting state pension income in 2011 were Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall, who listed $65,748 in income; John Culberson, R-Houston, $26,983; Gene Green, D-Houston, $51,862; and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, $35,000. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison reported $23,774, also from a state plan.

 

Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, a former Houston City Council member, noted on her disclosure form that she is vested in the city's plan but has not yet received a benefit.

Some lawmakers listed their pensions as assets, for which the member is required to report the value in a broad range and, if income was generated in that year, the amount.

Two lawmakers disclosed their pensions in this way but did not report receiving payments.

Republican Kevin Brady, a former state rep from the Woodlands whose U.S. district takes in part of suburban Houston and Beaumont, listed his state pension valued at $15,001 to $50,000 in 2010.

Charlie Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Antonio, last year reported pensions worth between $50,001 and $100,000 from the Employees Retirement System of Texas and between $15,001 and $50,000 from the Texas County and District Retirement System. Gonzalez spent time as a state district judge and a state district judge before being elected to Congress in 1999.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn also listed a pension for the first time in 2011 worth $50,001 to $100,000 from the Employees Retirement System of Texas. He reported taking a $10,131 distribution. Cornyn was a state district judge and a member of the Texas Supreme Court before he was elected state Attorney General in 1998. He won his Senate seat in 2002.

Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, sees a distinction in the public’s mind between double-dipping by members of Congress in state or local plans and workers who are taking two checks from the same level of government. 

For example, Gov. Rick Perry was discovered in December to have been drawing his state pension while serving in state office – and making a short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I think some of the noise about Gov. Perry was that it was state pension & state salary,” Ellis said. “Especially considering it is a state or local pension – which they would be owed no matter what their job was - Congressman, plumber, or dog-catcher - it becomes harder to go after. At some point it does seem excessive, that they are able to feed at the various public troughs.”

The federal-state double dip is “hard to justify,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer rights group.

“It’s become more problematic up and down the level of bureaucracy, where members of Congress or high state officials like Gov. Perry do this kind of stuff,” Smith said. “Then it becomes OK for executives in state agencies to retire and then go back to work as consultants for the agencies they worked for, which is becoming more common.”

However distasteful double-dipping may be, it would be hard to ban.

“The situation isn't any different, technically, from a teacher receiving pension payments from Texas and doing some part-time or full-time teaching in another state,” said Ron Snell, who studies state pensions for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Given the general understanding that a pension is deferred compensation -- compensation a person has already earned by employment but that has been deferred from the time of service until later -- it would be difficult to construct state law to prohibit the practice.”

It would take a federal law to prohibit the state-federal double dip, which, Smith said, “I don’t expect to happen in my lifetime.”

More information about lawmakers’ finances in 2011 will trickle out over the summer. Nine members from Texas requested extensions to get in their paperwork, according to Legistorm.

Most of the former state lawmakers in Congress receiving state pensions introduced bills during their time in Austin regarding retirement benefits.

Rep. Kenny Marchant, a state rep from 1987 to 2004, in 1997 authored a pension bill that would have based lawmakers’ pensions on starting teacher’s salaries. The bill failed. Marchant, R-Coppell, in 2010 received a $35,000 state pension. In 2010, he was determined to be the 17th wealthiest member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Laredo Democrat Henry Cuellar, a state rep from 1987 to 2001 who received $38,596 last year from the Employee Retirement System of Texas, pitched a bill in 1997 that would have given county court at law judges credit toward a state pension. He also authored a 1991 bill to allow communications officers with the Department of Public Safety qualify for the same benefits as troopers. Both failed.

Lloyd Doggett, who served in the state Senate from 1973 to 1985, authored a bill in 1979 that would allow state employees to take their accrued sick pay in a lump sum. The bill, which was determined to cost taxpayers up to $6 million a year, went nowhere.

Doggett, though, also authored a joint resolution that was adopted and asserts a retiree cannot collect “from more than one system for the same service, but the legislature may provide by law that a person with service covered by more than one system or program is entitled to a fractional benefit from each system or program…”

Doggett, D-Austin, listed income of $64,906 in 2010 from his state pension.

Texas Watchdog’s review found Republicans and Democrats alike double-dipping.

Smith, of Public Citizen, pointed out that conservatives have been most outspoken on the problems caused by public pensions, “and you can’t have it both ways.

“You can’t be openly critical of people doing what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s part of why people are so distrustful of their elected officials, and
it exemplifies that public service is abused by those at the highest level of government.”

Members of Congress are also able to participate in the federal pension system and are vested after five years of service.

Lawmakers who are 62 or older with five years of service or 50 or older with 20 years of service are able to take a full pension. Lawmakers with 25 years of service qualify for full pension benefits as well, no matter their age. Amounts are based on their time of service, age at retirement and which plan they are in. A detailed assessment of the system can be seen here.

Ron Paul, the Libertarian congressman from east Texas, proclaimed in 1997 that he would never take a federal pension. He does take $104,516 a year in benefits from the private pension he set up when he was a practicing physician.

congress graphic

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

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

Houston-area Congressional delegation gets wealthier even in recession
Monday, Mar 05, 2012, 11:35AM CST
By Steve Miller
money house

While median incomes among Texas residents increased a barely-perceptible 0.8 percent between 2007 and 2010, the capital gains of most of our Beltway delegation climbed with gusto, according to this Houston Chronicle analysis.

The new findings covered the period between 2006 and 2010 and were done by mining the required financial disclosure filings by our elected federal representatives. Seven of the 11 noted made money as the S & P Index slid 11 percent over that period.

We’re especially proud of Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, whose already formidable bank rose 715 percent, from $46 million to $380 million.

Especially proud because it appears that McCaul hasn’t held a private-sector job very often, according to his biography. He came to Congress after working in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Texas, and prior to that, he was a deputy attorney general when U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was the AG. He was also a federal prosecutor in Washington.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee has also weathered to recession well, jumping her assets 433 percent, from $175,000 to $935,000.

That didn’t deter Jackson Lee from lamenting those who are less fortunate.

“The house is on fire,” Jackson Lee told an MSNBC talking head last year. “Poverty has to be our number one issue for the American people.”

But both of these legislative giants have lost value on their respective homes. McCaul’s assessed home value  - on a 10,000-square foot crib in Austin - went from $3.125 million in 2006 to $3.110 million in 2010, while Jackson Lee’s more modest 4,000-square foot place in Houston slipped in appraised value from $242,000 in 2008 to $221,532 in 2010.

Also noteworthy is the gain of Republican presidential contender Ron Paul, who reported a 46 percent increase from $2.4 million to $3.5 million.

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

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.

Image 'Money House' by flickr user 401K, used via a Creative Commons license.

Rep. Kay Granger’s $52 million for Trinity River makes list of Congressional ‘earmarks’ for projects near members’ property
Tuesday, Feb 07, 2012, 03:31PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
U.S. House

Rep. Kay Granger’s tireless work in Washington has delivered nearly 52 million dollars to downtown Fort Worth redevelopment. Taxpayers can rest easy knowing she has put that money in the hands of her son, JD.

Granger, R-Fort Worth, didn’t top the Washington Post’s list of 49 members of Congress who managed to bring more than $300 million in federal money to places close enough to benefit them or someone close to them.

That would be Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., whose $124 million in what the Beltway crowd quaintly calls earmarks has spiffed up downtown Tuscaloosa where Shelby just happens to own an office building.

Granger had to settle for second, edging out California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who believed Americans were anxious to part with $50 million to provide light rail for Union Square and Chinatown in San Francisco.

The Post examined the greasy dives into the pork barrel by all 535 members of Congress and found 33 who helped direct spending to projects within about two miles of where they live or own property.

Another 16 lawmakers slung suet-smeared slabs at programs, businesses and colleges where relatives might reasonably be seen to benefit.

And although the practice is sometimes looked down upon by the public (hence all the allusions to pigs, their ears and waistlines), as Texas Watchdog has pointed out, the story reminds us this wallow is altogether legal. The Senate earlier this month voted 59-40 against an amendment outlawing earmarks.

While the amounts of money and the projects varied, there was a single unwavering reply to questions by the Post to the pork mongers: In no way was personal benefit a consideration before my fatty, two-fisted barrel grab.

Granger has taken full advantage of her legal right. In 2010 she delivered to her district $70.4 million in 35 different installments, 29th among everyone in the House, according to the government accountability non-profit Open Secrets.

Over the past 10 years Granger has made sure all American taxpayers got a stake in the revival of downtown Fort Worth. The project includes rerouting the Trinity River for those taxpayers in Maine who might not have known the river needed rerouting.

The executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority is JD Granger. Until 2010, mother and son owned a condominium a half a mile south of the project, the story says.

Texas put four others on the list, piglet snatchers compared to Granger.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who has lobbied for light rail earmarks, helped secure $5.25 million to the University of Houston in 2009 and 2010. At the time her husband, Elwyn Lee, was vice president of student affairs.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, managed to get $2.98 million to widen three miles of bypass for U.S. Highway 287, the dust of which probably stuck to the windows of two nearby homes Barton owns.

Just up the road from Republican Rep. Lamar Smith’s San Antonio home are three road improvements paid for with $950,000 Smith earmarked in 2009 for the Fort Sam Houston military base.

That same year Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, brought home $665,000 to help widen a road for the development of  a commercial property near the family’s food processing plant. Hinojosa is a partner in the commercial development.
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo from the House chambers via houselive.gov.
GOP lawmakers could curb funding for rail, including Houston Metro's light-rail expansion
Monday, Jan 31, 2011, 11:29AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Houston Metro train

A conservative Republican revolt against the creation of federally-funded American rail systems continues with a pledge to kill an urban transit program that has at least $900 million in its budget for Houston.

"We believe that Congress would not act in bad faith for cities," Mayor Annise Parker told the Chronicle, "not just Houston but cities across the country that have expended funds with the expectation that those funds would be reimbursed."


The Chronicle reported on reaction from Texas' officials in Washington:

"Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, has appealed to Obama in a personal letter, urging him to 'carefully examine' funding for Houston's light rail projects that transport employees of 26 Fortune 500 companies and 3,000 other Houston firms engaged in business in 200 countries worldwide. 'These projects exemplify urban mobility, jobs, economic prosperity, energy independence and sustainable growth for our city,' Jackson Lee wrote the president. ...


"'I certainly know the popularity of Metro in Houston and the importance of investing in transportation infrastructure,“ says Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio, a member of the Senate Budget Committee. 'But at the same time, we have to say there's no money left. Everybody is going to have to suffer a little pain to get the country back on a sound financial footing.'"

Republican candidates this past fall made Obama's $10.5 billion in taxpayer-funded stimulus money for high-speed rail a political issue. The new conservative governors of Wisconsin and Ohio made good on campaign promises rejecting a total of more than $1 billion, which the U.S. Department of Transportation promptly redistributed to other states.


Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

 

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 feed in your newsreader. We're also onMySpaceDiggFriendFeed, NewsVine and tumblr.


Photo of Houston Metro train by flickr user DandyDanny, used via a Creative Commons license.

Thousands of voter registrations from Houston Votes called fraudulent, incomplete
Tuesday, Aug 24, 2010, 09:53PM CST
By Steve Miller and Trent Seibert

 

  

Voter registration group Houston Votes has inundated the county voter registrar's office with faulty registrations, including multiple applications for the same voters and for noncitizens, registrar Leo Vasquez said. He likens it to ACORN.

Two Texas activist groups, Houston Votes and Texans Together Education Fund, were accused Tuesday of an organized voter fraud campaign by Harris County Voter Registrar Leo Vasquez, who likened the groups to the now-discredited ACORN.

“The integrity of the voting rolls in Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systematic attack by the group operating under the name Houston Votes,” Vasquez said at a 2 p.m. press conference at his office, where he also released copies of applications in some of the most egregious cases.


Houston Votes is the get-out-the-vote arm of the Texans Together Education Fund.


“Evidence shows that the Houston Votes and Texans Together organization are conspiring on a pattern of falsification of government documents, supporting perjury in a deliberate effort to overburden our processing system," he said.


Vasquez said he is turning evidence over to the Secretary of State’s office and the Harris County District Attorney’s office for further action. He called into question more than 5,000 voter registration applications.


Vasquez' office announcement was based in part on research by a conservative-leaning citizens' group, the King Street Patriots, which had presented his staff with documentation of questionable voter registrations, a leader of the Patriots group said.


Texans Together head Fred Lewis said that he has worked with Vasquez to clear up any discrepancies until recently.


"He is a liar and a political hack," Lewis said. "We are going to the Justice Department to make sure he doesn't make a mockery of the voting process."


Lewis and several others from his group seeking to help register voters attended classes offered by Vasquez' office. The group took more than 50,000 voter registration forms, Vasquez said.


But “after observing consistent and repeated patterns of apparently fraudulent or excessively sloppy work,” Vasquez and his deputies called Lewis and other group members into the office for a conference. The parties went over the troubling elements of the registrations.


Among the problems were multiple applications for one voter, some registered voters being signed up again and voters who claimed to have no Texas ID, driver’s license or Social Security card.


Lewis confirmed the meetings and said that some of his field people charged with registering voters were let go.


“We sat down and said, ‘Let us know of these problems, and we will take care of them,’ Lewis said. “We fixed every problem they brought to our attention. We cooperated.”


Vasquez contends they did not rectify enough issues and his office spent “thousands of dollars in taxpayer money” to go over the submitted documents in an attempt to straighten things out.


He alleges Lewis and his operations have violated Texas Election Code, submitted falsified documents and “possibly violated federal election laws.”


No wrongdoing: Houston Votes


Sean Caddle, the director of Houston Votes, admitted that there may have been “mistakes made” by his vote gathering team, but said Houston Votes did nothing wrong and called it a legitimate program.


After Caddle was shown examples of Houston Votes workers registering one name – Carmella Bellazer – with the same date of birth six times on the same day, he said  “that probably would be a clear case of fraud.”


Caddle is a former Service Employees International Union worker from New Jersey and also recently worked in Colorado as part of a voter registration effort there linked to the effort that turned the Centennial State from a solid red state to a Democratic stronghold.


Catherine Engelbrecht, the leader of the King Street Patriots, said she became interested in digging into voter fraud after working the polls in November and seeing the potential for fraud.


“That set things into motion,” she said. “It stood to reason where the was smoke there was fire. It didn’t seem the process was tight at all.”


In the coming months, she and hundreds of other volunteers decided to start digging into public records and the group's True the Vote initiative was born.


“We’re just digging it up and passing it to the proper authorities,” Engelbrecht said.


King Street Patriots' research


First, the group looked at all homes with more than six registered voters. They zeroed in on one congressional district, she said, that had more of these homes than others: District 18, home of Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.


Engelbrecht said, though, that the group's efforts were not about partisan politics. She also says her group has begun examining every single voter on the registry – not just those in a particular Congressional district.


“This is so not about party,” she said. “This is about maintaining the integrity of our voter rolls.”


Lewis said he was aware that a right-leaning group had submitted documents to Vasquez, though he didn't know of the Patriots by name. He said he felt Vasquez' action was politically driven.


While Lewis maintains his group is nonpartisan, its board is decidedly liberal-leaning, according to research by blogHouston, which noted earlier this month that the Texans Together board included a Bill Clinton appointee, Democratic consultants and an aide to former Gov. Ann Richards.


Lewis said that he and Vasquez, a Republican lame duck, had a meeting scheduled for Wednesday at 10:30 a.m., but he is now not sure it is on, in light of Vasquez' announcement.


Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org. Contact Trent Seibert at 832-316-4966 or trent@texaswatchdog.org.

 

Photo of election signs by flickr user meltedplastic, used via a Creative Commons license.

  

 

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