05.27.08

House Ethics Issues Highlight Texas GOP’s Troubles

Posted in Around The State, Money In Politics, The Lege at 2:19 pm by wcnews

Two Texas legislators had ethics complaints filed against them last year for pay(ing) wives with campaign donations, which is against the rules.

When ethics complaints were filed last year accusing state Reps. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, and Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, of illegally paying their wives with campaign donations, they reacted differently.

Eissler admitted he was wrong, stopped paying his wife to run his legislative office and said he had agreed with the Texas Ethics Commission to pay back the $52,000 out of his pocket.

Isett chose to fight the complaint. He stopped paying his and his wife’s accounting company to manage the campaign’s books but began paying a separate company that she created in response to the ethics complaint. And he upped the amount, from $36,300 over the previous 2½ years to $39,158 last year, or half of every dollar he raised in 2007.

Critics say Isett is testing the legal limits in a way that could highlight a loophole — paying a spouse’s company — for other lawmakers to use.

Both men deny intentionally violating the law.

State law prohibits lawmakers or candidates from using political donations to pay themselves, their spouses or their dependent children. The intent is to prevent a legislator from living off campaign donors, who frequently are lobbyists representing clients. The law was passed in 1991 in response to a couple of senators who used campaign dollars to subsidize their family businesses.

Paying spouses for campaign services is rare, according to a review of recent campaign reports, but there’s a growing trend of lawmakers using political donations for things unrelated to campaigning. Lawmakers without opponents are using their campaign cash to supplement their staff’s salaries, pay for travel or living expenses in Austin, and lease planes or luxury cars used in their official duties.

Neither Eissler nor Isett drew opponents this year.

Kudos to Eissler for admitting his mistake and paying the money back. Eissler pointing to Craddick’s leadership on this issue is priceless:

Eissler said he saw Speaker Tom Craddick paying his adult daughter six figures with campaign donations. He said he didn’t realize that the law allows lawmakers to pay their adult children with campaign dollars but not their spouses and dependent children living in their household.

“I didn’t understand the difference,” Eissler said. “When I found out you can’t do that, I stopped.”

Isett on the other hand found a way around it:

As a CPA, Isett said he read the law differently than lawyers who specialize in campaign finance. The law refers to personal services, he said, and he thought his wife, trained as an accountant, was providing a professional service to the campaign and was not covered by that provision.

“As accountants we have a different understanding and frame of reference about what these words mean,” said Isett, referring to Internal Revenue Service guidelines on professional services.

After hiring a lawyer to represent him before the Ethics Commission, Isett said, his wife created the company “to bring us back into compliance.”

While the law forbids direct payments to lawmakers, a spouse or dependent children, it allows a lawmaker to reimburse a legislator’s company for “actual expenditures” but not for a profit.

For example, a lawmaker who owns a printing company could reimburse his company for printing campaign materials, but he can’t pay himself a profit.

The law says nothing about a spouse’s company.

The end highlights the main problem with these types of issues in Texas.

Isett complained that lawmakers have to interpret an ambiguous law and research the Ethics Commission’s database with hundreds of legal opinions.

“You never know you might be doing something wrong,” Isett said, “until someone files a complaint.”

Yet neither Isett nor Eissler asked the Ethics Commission for advice, as the law allows, before they began paying their wives.

This kind of shenanigans points to why the Texas GOP is in trouble. The Ethics Commission is reactionary entity. They do not actively seek out violations, they only react to filed complaints. It’s a body setup by legislators to keep an eye on legislators. Which makes the odds slim that violators and violations will be caught. John Cobarruvias says it best:

Based upon this research, it is clear from the number of elected officials who have violations in their reports, the Texas Ethics Commission is either incompetent, or not interested in adequately monitoring, preventing, training, or taking corrective action against those who have violated the trust of the citizens of Texas.

The TEC has a motto “Promoting Public Confidence in Government”, but instead is nothing more than a repository for campaign finance information that provides little if any confidence to the public. It is near worthless.

The current system doesn’t discourage violations, in fact it almost encourages it. As long as there is little chance of getting caught and minimal penalties if caught, there’s little chance things will change.

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