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“Pay to play” petition drive falls short

Womp womp.

The political action committee that launched a petition drive aimed at limiting the influence of contractors and vendors at Houston City Hall failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, the group’s director said Wednesday.

The drive, which ended earlier this week, was for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, to amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls from King and fellow candidate Tony Buzbee to reform Houston’s campaign finance system, suggested the effort’s failure was an indictment on the “anti-pay-to-play” message being pushed by the political action committee backing the petition. The mayor urged reporters to “focus on real issues, real needs.”

“Let me just put it this way: I have not seen any problems,” Turner said. “I think that whole movement was more political than substantive.”

[…]

Ben McPhaul, the director of the PAC, said the committee still was receiving petitions Wednesday but would fall short of the roughly 40,000 signatures it needed to gather in 30 days under city rules.

“We are grateful for the hundreds of grass-roots volunteers who helped the effort with not a single paid petitioner,” McPhaul said in a statement. “The PAC plans to continue collecting signatures to raise awareness of the issue with hopes to get it on the ballot or in front of council in the future.”

See here for the background. Just so we’re clear here, this is not City Secretary Anna Russell counting the signatures and saying they don’t have enough valid ones. This is the PAC itself saying they didn’t get enough to even submit for inspection. They fell short of their goal.

The petition drive’s failure reflects the PAC’s lack of volunteers and funds more than the public’s interest in reforming Houston’s campaign finance reform system, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

“You can’t read anything into this regarding the attitudes of Houstonians toward ‘pay to play,’” Jones said.

Still, the outcome represents a win for Turner, Jones said, because it means the topic of campaign finance reform may gain less media coverage and traction from political pundits near election time.

“I wouldn’t put it as a major failure for King, but certainly it’s a setback,” Jones said. “Once he got behind the petition, he owned the petition.”

King said state law separately allows a longer period for petition drives, so the PAC would continue to collect signatures. Though King’s campaign is not affiliated with the PAC, it has supported the drive, and King made a point of being the first person to sign the petition.

“We’ve been carrying it around on our campaign and we haven’t had a single person refuse to sign it,” he said.

He also noted Houston’s charter bases the number of required petition signatures on a mayoral election held within the last three years. Since the last election happened in 2015 — more than three years ago — King contended a petition drive now technically needs just one signature.

If that were challenged in court, however, the litigation would get resolved well after November, said King, indicating he had no interest in taking action in court.

I can accept that this isn’t a “major failure” for Bill King, but it should be clear to everyone that he didn’t put any real effort into this cynical ploy. He has plenty of his own money, and could have raised more, to fund a sufficient petition drive if he really wanted this to be on the ballot. We’ve seen plenty of successful petition drives in the last decade. Did King really not know what it was going to take, or did someone tell him and he was like “eh, whatever, we’ll just wing it with some volunteers”? If “cleaning up City Hall” is the foundation of your campaign, and you go through the motions to mount this effort in the first place, what does it say about you and your commitment to this idea that you just let it fail without a fight?

The bit about the charter language is interesting. I think as a legal argument it’s mostly sophistry, but I could see a judge buying a plain-text reading and agreeing that even one signature is now sufficient until and unless the city cleans up that part of the charter. Here again, though, if King actually believed what he was saying he would have acted differently. Why not file that lawsuit before now? Theoretically, he could have filed it on November 4, 2018, which is three years and a day after the 2015 Mayoral election. Even if I’m wrong about that, I don’t see anything in the charter section on legislating by referendum that limits when a petition effort is allowed to begin. Maybe there still wasn’t a path to getting the question resolved in time for the 2019 election – though if you win the first round, it’s the city that has to start worrying about deadlines, not you – but boy howdy was this a limp production. It’s easy for me to take potshots at Bill King, but if you like him as a candidate and believed in this proposed charter amendment, you should be upset. At every step of the way, he did the very least he could do.

Here comes another referendum no one will understand

Be careful what petitions you sign, that’s my advice.

A political action committee is launching a petition drive Sunday aimed at limiting how much city contractors and vendors can contribute to municipal candidates, marking the start of a month-long effort to gather enough signatures to put the so-called anti-pay-to-play measure on Houston’s November ballot.

The drive is for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, that would amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Houston’s campaign finance laws allow individual donors to give candidates up to $5,000 every two years. Committees can contribute a maximum of $10,000 during the same span.

The amendment would further prohibit city board and commission members, as well as sexually-oriented business owners, from giving candidates any campaign money.

[…]

To put it on the ballot, the PAC — called “End Pay to Play” — must gather about 40,000 signatures from registered Houston voters within a 30-day window ending July 8. The city secretary would then verify the signatures, prompting city council to vote on holding an election to coincide with the Nov. 5 municipal contests.

We’ll see if this thing gets enough signatures in the allotted time. Collecting a sufficient amount of valid signatures takes resources, which is to say volunteers and/or paid canvassers. I don’t know how much grassroots energy exists for something like this, but I’ll be sure to look at the “End Pay to Play” PAC finance reports to see how they’re spending their money.

I have some questions about this. First of all, it sure seems to me like there may be some constitutional issues with the prohibitions this would impose. Last I checked, the First Amendment did not exclude strip club owners from the right to express their political beliefs. In a post-Citizens United world, where money is speech and corporations are people, it’s not clear to me that this would stand up to legal scrutiny. One possible outcome here is that not only is that provision struck down, but other parts of Houston’s campaign finance laws could be endangered. It’s not that long ago that the fundraising blackout rule got tossed by a federal judge. The potential here for unintended consequences is greater than zero.

I would also note that by going through the referendum process, this proposal will not get vetted by the legislative process. There will be no public hearings, no opportunities for Council members to ask questions or put forth amendments. I would argue that this is how you get a firefighter pay parity law passed that had no mechanism to pay for it (never mind the later ruling that it violated state law). There are times when the direct approach works well, and for sure there have been referenda that I have supported, such as Renew Houston, for which this criticism would also apply. Bill King, for one, has been critical of Renew Houston for this reason, among others. Here, though, King is actually running for Mayor, and it would be well within his capability if he wins to hand an ordinance for Council to vote on to do what’s in this referendum. Maybe he’s hedging his bets, maybe he just doesn’t want to get Council involved. Or, you know, maybe he sees a political advantage in taking this approach.

(Note that Bill King has taken it upon himself to crusade against campaign contributions from strip club owners. In case you were wondering why that particular legally questionable provision is in the petition, and why I say this is King working to his own advantage.)

(I know it’s a tedious bit of whataboutism, but Greg Abbott has made a career out of rewarding his campaign supporters. He went so far as to endorse the primary opponent of the Republican legislator who authored a bill that would have restricted this practice of Abbott’s. One can engage in government as one sees fit, but if there were evidence that, say, Bill King had encouraged people to email their State Rep in support of that bill, I might be a tad bit less cynical about his motives here.)

(The story notes that King himself used to be a player in this system that he now decries, as a partner at Linebarger Goggan. For this, I have no criticism of him. People are allowed to change their minds, and no one has to have a specific road to Damascus moment to do so. If he says he now regrets what he once did, I take him at his word. There’s plenty of room for me to snipe at his actions, as you can see.)

(No, I don’t know why I put all these last paragraphs in parentheses. Once I got started, it kind of built on itself. I’ll stop now.)

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t review our campaign finance and ethics ordinances. I just think we should do it in a more deliberative and rigorous process that ensures that the final product is compliant with existing federal law. I would also note that even outside that concern, we should be careful about how we regulate campaign contributions. If we make it harder for regular candidates to raise money for their campaigns, one effect of that will be that it confers an advantage to wealthy candidates who can self-finance their campaigns. I for one don’t think that’s much of an improvement.

Anyway. If you get accosted at the Kroger parking lot to sign a petition, please do be sure to know what it’s about before you affix your autograph. I personally would not sign this, but your mileage may vary.

Metro’s challenge

It’s all about BRT.

Houston transit officials are betting on bus rapid transit as a big part of the region’s long-term plans, at times going as far as calling it the “wave of the future.”

If seeing is believing, however, voters in the region will go into the election booth blind when it comes to bus rapid transit, or BRT. Houston has local buses, MetroLift buses, commuter buses and even articulated buses on major routes, but BRT is MIA.

“(Light) rail seems to be very well maintained and it has a high degree of reliability,” said Lex Frieden, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “BRT, since we have not experienced that, we can only imagine how a bus can be as stable as the sense you have on a train. How can it be as reliable as a train? Part of the issue is familiarity.”

Growing transit, specifically via BRT, is a major component of the $7.5 billion plan Metro developed over the past 18 months. The agency is expected to ask voters for authority to borrow money in November, with the specifics of the projects still under review. Plans include 20 more miles of light rail, two-way HOT lanes along most freeways and about 75 miles of BRT.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses to operate mostly along dedicated lanes, offering service similar to light rail without the cost or construction of train tracks. It has proven successful in communities such as Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The first foray into BRT in the region will be along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area. Drivers already have felt the construction pain, but riders will not hop aboard until next March, months later than initially scheduled when construction began in 2016.

In the interim, Metro will try to convince people to support something most have never seen. Part of that will mean getting people to reconsider their own biases.

“The second people hear bus, they have an image in their mind,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

[…]

If voters approve, BRT could become a big part of regional transit. Metro plans BRT along five major corridors, at an estimated cost of $3.15 billion. The routes mostly mirror where Metro previously proposed rail, most notably between the University of Houston and Uptown and from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The former, once dubbed the University Line, long has been a point of contention. Voters in 2003 narrowly approved the Metro Solutions plan that included light rail from UH, through downtown and on to Uptown, but the project sputtered under intense opposition from residents along Richmond Avenue.

Now resurrected as a bus rapid transit project, the pains of the previous rail fight linger. Transit critics still question Metro’s ability to execute a major project that does not disrupt traffic, noting the Post Oak project has taken longer than expected and derailed driving along the street.

Rail backers, meanwhile, insist trains are superior, with some opposed to any Metro plan that does not include trains to and from downtown and Uptown.

I mean, we don’t have BRT now, but we almost had it for the Green and Purple lines back when Frank Wilson and David Wolff were screwing things up at Metro. There were questions about the funding for those lines, which were eventually resolved in Metro’s favor. (I wrote about this stuff at the time, but I’m too lazy to look up the links right now. Please take my word for it.) The concept isn’t completely new to Houston, is what I’m saying.

Be that as it may, I’m not too worried about BRT being a negative for Metro in the referendum. The question, as is usually the case with referenda, is who will oppose this, and how much money they will put into opposing it. Will John Culberson rise like a white walker and raise a bunch of untraceable PAC money to block the issue? (We still don’t know who funded the anti-Metro effort from 2003, by the way.) How will the Mayor’s race affect this? We know Bill King is anti-rail, but I don’t know what (or if) Tony Buzbee thinks about it. It’s too early to say how this will play out. Metro does have to come up with a good marketing plan for its referendum, once it is finalized – they’ve been busy running a bunch of generic feel-good spots during the NBA playoffs – but get back to me when and if organized opposition arises.

Hotze and the judges

From family law attorney Greg Enos, who publishes a legal blog/newsletter called The Mongoose (I’ve referenced him here before):

Real Journalists Should Investigate How Republican Judges Are Funneling Money to Hotze’s Hate Group

I am a full-time lawyer and only a part-time journalist. Real news organizations need to look into the facts and questions uncovered in my story in this issue and tomorrow’s issue about how Harris County Republican judges are giving money to a politically powerful and hateful bigot, Steven Hotze, and his partner in anti-LGBT insanity, Jared Woodfill. Judges are paying money to a mysterious company that Woodfill and Hotze apparently partly own even as Woodfill is appearing in front of those same judges as a lawyer and being appointed by those judges to CPS cases where the county pays Woodfill’s fees. Go ask those judges if they are disclosing to the attorneys who oppose Woodfill in their courts that there is a business relationship between the judges’ campaigns and a company Woodfill apparently co-owns.

There have been news stories and blog posts about Hotze’s oversized and malignant influence on local GOP politics. But, no journalist has so far delved deeply into how money flows between Hotze’s various PAC’s, how his influential slate mailer is paid for, or where payments from judges to Hotze actually go. My two part article published today and tomorrow attempts to unravel and explain the tangled financial web of hate involving Hotze, Woodfill and most of the Republican judges in Harris County.

I started this project by trying to find out if the judges were making illegal contributions to Hotze’s political action committees (PAC). I realized during my investigation that some of the judges did not know exactly where their checks to Hotze ended up. But, I did conclude, based on the limited information I was able to uncover, that the judges’ payments were not illegally made to a PAC.

However, what I did learn poses just as serious questions about judicial ethics and the integrity of our judicial system. I am also now really curious about why these judges are paying money to Hotze’s and Woodfill’s company and what exactly they get for those payments if they are not paying for inclusion in Hotze’s slate mailer. I have spent dozens of hours on this investigation, and I still have more questions than answers.

That’s Part 1. Here’s Part 2. Both are long and detailed, far too in depth for me to usefully excerpt, so go read them. Enos is up front about generally supporting Democrats, but has no problem crossing over to support judges he likes, as well as District Clerk Chris Daniel. Enos documented a bunch of bad behavior by Judges Alicia Franklin and Denise Pratt in 2014; see here for those archives. If he’s coming at you, he’s got the receipts. Lord knows, no one deserves to be thoroughly and humiliatingly defeated more than Steven Hotze, and no judge worthy of the name should want to be associated with him. Go read what Enos has to say on the matter.

Late money in the HISD races

Here it comes.

A political action committee mostly funded by the nation’s largest teachers’ union has received $225,000 to spend on supporting four candidates for the Houston ISD school board election and a city ballot measure, campaign finance reports show.

Houston United for Strong Public Schools plans to spend in support of three incumbent candidates — Wanda Adams, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung — and newcomer Elizabeth Santos ahead of Tuesday’s election, records show. The PAC doesn’t plan to spend on candidates in two other Houston ISD board races.

Political action committees operate independently of individual candidates’ campaigns. Houston United for Strong Public Schools has received the most donations to date among PACs supporting local school board candidates.

Records show Houston United for Strong Public Schools took in $150,000 from the political arm of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 1.7 million public employees, most of them working in schools.

The PAC also received $75,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union representing about 1.6 million public service employees. In addition to supporting the four board candidates, the PAC plans to spend in favor of a Houston city ballot measure to authorize the sale of $1 billion in bonds under a pension reform plan.

That’s a lot of money, but at least from my perspective in District I, it hasn’t been particularly visible to me. I’ve received mail from the Santos campaign, but no more than what I’ve received from the Himsl and Richart campaigns. I haven’t received any robocalls or been visited by any canvassers – for whatever the reason, it’s extremely rare for someone to knock on my door on behalf of a campaign – and if there are ads running on TV or the radio, I’ve not seen them. I don’t think I’ve seen any Facebook ads or ads in my Gmail, either. Maybe the bulk of this money is being earmarked for a runoff, I don’t know. Risky strategy if that’s the case.

The eight day finance reports are now available, but you won’t see any activity related to HUSPS in there. For example, here’s Santos’ 8 day report, which includes a $5K donation from Houston Federation of Teachers COPE, but HUSPS is nowhere to be seen. You have to go to the Texas Ethics Commission page and search for Houston United for Strong Public Schools there. In their TEC report, you can see that while they’ve raised $225K, they’ve only spent $115K, and $47K of that was for polling, which ought to be fascinating given the turnout context. I can’t tell from this how much they have spent in each race – there isn’t a single entry that specifies a dollar amount for Santos, for example. I don’t spend as much time with PAC reports as I have done with candidate reports, so maybe I just don’t know how to read these. Point is, this is where to look to get the details.

All of this has caused some controversy, which has played out on Facebook. The HUSPS website has no “About” page, and it took some sleuthing to figure out their origin. Not to put too fine a point on it, but large amounts of money being spent on local races by groups whose backers are not apparent is generally something that many of us find alarming. As Campos has noted, it’s hardly unusual for the HFT to get involved in HISD elections – they’re as much of a stakeholder as anyone else, after all – but this method of doing so is new. I don’t understand the rationale behind this approach, either, but it is what they have chosen to do. We’ll see how it plays out.

No bribery charges against Paxton

I didn’t expect this to amount to anything, and indeed it hasn’t.

Best mugshot ever

A $100,000 donation to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal fund did not constitute bribery, Kaufman County District Attorney Erleigh Wiley said Friday in announcing her office had closed its investigation into the gift, which came from a CEO whose company was under investigation for fraud.

Wiley’s office originally opened its probe on Oct. 5 after Paxton accepted donations from James Webb, whose diagnostics company was investigated after it allegedly billed the government for Medicaid and Medicare services conducted without proper medical supervision. Webb’s company ultimately paid $3.5 million in a settlement.

[…]

Wiley said in a news release Friday that as Webb and Paxton had previously had a “personal relationship” and “attorney/client relationship,” the donation did not constitute bribery.

See here and here for the background. Like I said, my expectations here were low. Jesus loves me, but he doesn’t love me that much, you know? We’re gonna have to get rid of this guy ourselves.

More on the Paxton bribery investigation

It’s good to have rich friends.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton says the man who shelled out the most money to help him combat securities fraud charges is a “family friend,” but a review of campaign finance records show his main financier is also a major Republican donor for candidates up and down the ticket.

In a little more than a decade, Preferred Imaging CEO James Webb has given nearly $1 million to Republican candidates, including a $100,000 gift to Paxton to help fund his legal defense fund. The year after he gave his gift, the attorney general’s office agreed to a $3.5 million settlement after investigating his company for Medicare fraud.

Now Webb and his gift are at the center of the latest investigation into Paxton’s personal dealings, sparking a probe by the Kaufman County district attorney, confirmed an investigator at the agency.

Mike Holley, who is handling the case, said the DA will announce in the coming weeks whether the office will bring charges that Paxton violated the state’s bribery and corrupt influence laws by taking money from someone whose company was under investigation.

[…]

Webb, of Frisco, is a former law client of Paxton’s, according to Welch. Paxton participated at Webb’s wedding, he added, but declined to provide further details or pictures.

Webb has been a regular campaign contributor of Paxton’s for years. He gave him his first political donation in 2013 when the Republican from McKinney was running for attorney general, according to campaign finance records. He has contributed heavily to other Republican candidates’ political campaigns since then.

In total, he has given $896,800 to Republican candidates’ political coffers since 2006, according to a review of campaign finance records. Webb ponied up the most – $496,000 – for the 2014 election when voters swept Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Paxton into office.

The wealthy CEO has helped fuel all their campaigns, but gave the most to Paxton. Webb contributed $300,000 when Paxton was running for attorney general although he also give tens of thousands of dollars to Dallas area state representatives and hopefuls that election cycle.

[…]

The investigation is focused on whether Paxton violated the state’s bribery and corrupt influence penal code, said Holley, an investigator in the Kaufman County district attorney’s office handling the case. However, the investigation could turn up wrongdoing by other actors, he said.

Kaufman County District Attorney Erleigh Norville Wiley is expected to announce this fall whether the investigation has warranted new charges, she said.

See here for the background. Again, I don’t really expect anything to come out of the Kaufman County investigation, but if something does, that would be amazing. For one thing, it might be difficult to fit this story into the “Paxton haters are out to get me!” narrative he’s been spinning, but I’m sure his attorneys are up to the task. Of course, those attorneys will still have to be paid, and he’ll have one fewer sugar daddies to tap for that. Life is hard, you know? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Keep some popcorn handy as we wait to see how this plays out.

Paxton being investigated for bribery

Sounds sexy, but don’t get too excited just yet.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton is being investigated under bribery and corrupt-influence laws for accepting a six-figure gift from a CEO whose company was under investigation by the state for fraud, the district attorney leading the probe confirmed Thursday.

In July 2016, Austin-based medical device company Preferred Imaging LLC agreed to pay a $3.5 million settlement after a multiyear Medicaid and Medicare fraud investigation. The year before, Preferred Imaging CEO James Webb had given $100,000 to help Paxton fight criminal fraud charges the attorney general has been battling since July 2015.

On Thursday, Kaufman County District Attorney Erleigh Wiley confirmed to The Dallas Morning News that she has been investigating whether Paxton broke state laws that put limits on gifts public servants can receive from people “subject to [their] jurisdiction.”

“There is an active investigation looking into that matter,” Wiley told The News. “We are carefully and thoroughly going through every piece of evidence.”

The complaint that led to the investigation was originally made to the Texas Rangers by the attorney of the same whistleblower that launched the probe into Preferred Imaging. Instead of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate, Wiley took it over at the behest of the regional administrative judge.

Wiley, a Republican, added she was close to deciding whether to send the case to a grand jury and said she’s received “great cooperation” from both the Texas Rangers and Paxton’s legal team.

[…]

To help pay for his lawyers, Paxton set up a legal defense fund in 2015. In its first year, he raised $330,000 from friends, family and business associates.

He listed the amounts under the “gifts” section of his annual financial disclosures, and last year, added this note to the end of the form: “All gifts for legal defense were conferred and accepted on account of a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of General Paxton’s official status.”

Webb’s 2015 donation was the largest single gift to Paxton’s legal defense fund. He did not contribute last year.

Texas’ bribery laws prohibit elected officials from taking “any benefit from a person the public servant knows to be subject to regulation, inspection, or investigation by the public servant or his agency.” Excepted are gifts “conferred on account of kinship or a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of the official status of the recipient.”

The Texas Ethics Commission has not signed off on elected officials receiving donations that aren’t campaign-related from out-of-state friends and business associates. In 2016, it punted a request to sign off on such an arrangement made by an anonymous official in Paxton’s agency.

It’s a long story and kid of hard to summarize, so go read it and see what you think. I think this is unlikely to turn into an indictment, but perhaps there’s more to it than it appears. If it does, I’m sure Paxton and his squadron of defense attorneys will find a way to claim it’s another partisan witch hunt, despite Kaufman County being more Republican than Collin. We’ll see how it goes. The Trib and the Chron have more.

Someone really doesn’t like the Paxton case judge

It’s dirty tricks time.

Best mugshot ever

An anonymous campaign-like piece of mail has begun appearing in Texas attacking the judge overseeing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal securities fraud trial, discrediting the Tarrant County jurist who has said he plans to stay with the case as it moves to Houston this fall.

The sepia tone flier that alleges state District Judge George Gallagher’s court is “rigged against Texas” comes as Paxton fights to remove the judge from the bench overseeing his case.

“It’s definitely done with the goal of affecting the Paxton case,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, citing Gallagher’s next election is three years away. “It’s probably an attempt to either get Gallagher to resign from the case or to begin to affect the jury pool.”

[…]

First reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the mailer has been sighted in Tarrant County and elsewhere in the state.

Absent from the flier is a reference to who sent it, which is information required on political mailers that advocate people “vote for,” “elect,” “support,” “defeat” or “reject” a candidate or proposition. The flier uses none of those words, nor does it encourage people take a specific action.

“The general guideline is that political advertising that includes an express advocacy has to include a disclosure statement,” said Ian Steusloff, general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission, which examines complaints about political mailers. He declined to comment on whether the anonymous mailer is legal and said he cannot comment on whether the agency has received a complaint on the flier.

The mailer alleges Gallagher is “trying to Fix” the attorney general’s trial and cites a series of rulings by the 2nd and 7th Courts of Appeals dating to 2003 saying he “abused” his discretion.

Empower Texans, a conservative Republican group, embraced the message of the flier, but denied it had any involvement with it.

“The Paxton prosecution is a travesty and an embarrassment to the Texas criminal justice system. Whatever the source, Gallagher deserves the criticism he is receiving for his role in it,” read an essay from Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of the conservative group and defender of Paxton.

Yes, I’m sure those upstanding citizens at Empower Texans have nothing at all to do with this, and you can’t prove that they did. There’s a reason why they fight like crazed wolverines against any attempt to increase disclosure requirements. Bud Kennedy has a partial image of one of the flyers, which is right out of the ominous-voiceover-TV-attack-ad school. I doubt even these jokers would try to blanket the county with their lame hit pieces, but keep an eye on your mailboxes anyway. Why they think the judge is the root of Ken Paxton’s problems is beyond me, but they do have an investment to protect so here we are. The Press, which has further images of the mailer and some context to the BS charges it raises, has more.

Stockman trial delayed

Alas.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman’s trial on federal corruption charges has been pushed back to next year.

The trial, originally scheduled to begin June 5, will now kick off on Jan. 29, 2018, according to an order issued Wednesday by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal.

Stockman’s lawyer had requested the delay last week, asking the judge to put off the trial until “at least January 2018.” The motion to push back the trial had been unopposed.

The lawyer, Richard Kuniansky, said he needed more time to review 142,378 pages of evidence, apparently gathered by the government over the past three and a half years. Kuniansky said he may need the help of a forensic accountant and paralegal.

See here for the background. The request is fair enough, as lawyer Kuniansky is new to the case. I think Stockman is guilty, guilty, guilty, but that’s my opinion and the man deserves a fair trial just like anyone else. Let his attorney get up to speed, we can wait till January.

Stockman trial date set

Mark your calendar.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman is set to go to trial June 5 on federal corruption charges.

Stockman, a Houston-area Republican, has pleaded not guilty to charges of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations to himself and his congressional campaign. He was arraigned Monday.

The trial is expected to last one month, according to a scheduling order filed Tuesday. Pretrial motions are due May 12 and responses two weeks later.

[…]

Stockman has cycled through a number of lawyers since his arrest last month. On Thursday, he was given a court-appointed attorney, Richard Kuniansky.

See here for the previous update. How long this actually takes will depend in large part on what happens with the pretrial motions. The Tom DeLay and Ken Paxton sagas were and are as drawn out as they were because the indictments were challenged in the pretrial hearing, and the trial judges’ rulings upholding them were then appealed. I don’t think that will be the case here – there’s nothing so far to suggest that the charges themselves are in any way a stretch – but you never know. If nothing interesting comes out of that, then expect the trial itself to be on the schedule suggested by the story.

Stockman pleads not guilty

And we’re off.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Standing tall, with his hands hanging loosely at his sides, former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman told a federal magistrate in Houston Monday he understood the criminal charges against him and pleaded not guilty to theft of about $800,000 in charitable donations intended for conservative organizations and associated charges.

Upon Stockman’s request, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson had appointed him a lawyer last week to be paid for by the government until he can land a job. Stockman said he needed to dismiss his hand-picked lawyers because he can’t work while under indictment: His job requires him to travel overseas, which is not permitted under his bond.

Stockman was indicted on 28 federal corruption charges. He said publicly that he expects to be fully vindicated. He is free on bond.

Robert J. Heberle, an attorney from the public integrity division of the Justice Department, told the magistrate Monday he anticipated the trial would last one month and as many as 40 to 50 witnesses could be called for the prosecution. Johnson encouraged the government to whittle down the list. Stockman’s trial is set for June 5 before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal for the Southern District of Texas.

Stockman’s new attorney, Richard B. Kuniansky, who defended former accountant Mark Kuhrt in the massive Stanford prosecution several years ago, said after Stockman’s plea that he felt news reports had been unfair in their portrayal of the former lawmaker.

“It’s my understanding that pretty much been a pattern of attack on the character of Mr. Stockman,” Kuniansky said. “We’re looking forward to the truth coming out.”

See here for the background, and here for the pre-hearing version of the story. All I have to add at this point is that I too look forward to the truth coming out.

Steve Stockman claims he’s broke

Pobrecito.

Best newspaper graphic ever

Former Congressman Steve Stockman told a federal magistrate Wednesday he can’t afford to pay for a lawyer to represent him against allegations he helped steal about $800,000 in charitable donations intended for conservative organizations.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Johnson agreed to appoint a lawyer for him and postponed a hearing on his case until Friday.

Stockman told the judge he needed to dismiss his hand-picked lawyers from the elite firm of Smyser Kaplan & Veselka and ideally he wanted the court to re-appoint them to the case at the government’s expense. She said she’d consider the request.

He confirmed for the judge details on a disclosure form he’d filled out in front of a roomful of defendants in shackles and jail uniforms, indicating he owned a home, a rental property and two vans.

“But you have no assets?” Johnson asked.

“This is a four-year case,” the former lawmaker said, indicating he’d been paying for legal support on these matters for a long time.

See here and here for some background. I would have asked him “what, you can’t use some of that money you stole to pay your lawyers?”, which is no doubt why I’m not a US Magistrate. Well, that and the lack of a law degree. But seriously, this guy. I don’t know why anyone believes a word he says.

In the meantime, feast on this.

The fact that the former congressman is facing multiple felony counts made national news. But one of the most interesting details in the 46-page Stockman indictment escaped notice: The suggestion that Richard Uihlein, one of the country’s biggest conservative political donors, personally wrote a check for $450,571.65 to mail a fake newspaper called The Conservative News to voters across Texas. The paper, which prosecutors say was part of a Stockman-run, secretly funded operation intended to take down Cornyn, included the dubious claims that Cornyn wanted to ban veterans from having guns, had voted to fund abortion, and was secretly working with Democrats to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Mailing a fake newspaper is not a crime, nor is secretly funding a candidate to do so. Thanks to a series of court decisions now known collectively as Citizens United, billionaires are allowed to fund anonymous attacks as long as they abide by an arcane set of tax and campaign finance rules. And Uihlein, who has given more than $43 million to conservative candidates and super PACs since 2011, is a particularly big fish. He is the chief executive of a family-owned shipping and packing materials company that’s confusingly named “Uline,” which Forbes estimated was worth at least $700 million in 2014. And through his private foundation, Uihlein has given millions more to nonprofits that push a conservative policy agenda and train a new generation of political operatives to sell it.

It’s not clear what, if anything, Uihlein knew about Stockman’s fake-news scheme. He is described as a victim in the Stockman case: Prosecutors say Stockman and his staffers fraudulently diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars Uihlein had donated. Uihlein’s funding of the fake-news operation would likely never have become public had Stockman not gotten tangled up with an FBI investigation — meaning this episode exposes a side of the U.S. campaign finance system we don’t often get to see.

[…]

Larry Barry, director of legal affairs at Uline, refused to answer questions about the case, but said in an emailed statement that “we are deeply troubled by the allegations … that certain contributions made in good faith may have been used for unintended personal and political purposes.” Barry referred to Uihlein as “a victim of this alleged misconduct” and said that “we have and will continue to fully cooperate with the Department of Justice in this investigation.”

[…]

One of the biggest unanswered questions in the Stockman case is how he apparently fooled Uihlein twice.

Prosecutors say Posey told Uihlein’s accountant in a May 13, 2014, email ― sent two months after Stockman lost the election ― that some of the money that was supposed to be used for Freedom House had gone to delivering medical supplies to “third world” countries. The email, which also included an attached tax exemption letter for Life Without Limits, allegedly constituted wire fraud ― though prosecutors don’t spell out exactly why.

What the documents don’t clear up is why Uihlein would fund Stockman’s direct mail campaign a year after his donation for Freedom House ― especially since it seemed like so little progress had been made on that first project. “You raise a good question, but it’s not one I can talk about today,” said Dane C. Ball, a Houston lawyer defending Stockman.

An answer may be in the offing if the case goes to trial. If that happens, it’s likely Uihlein would be called to testify, said D.C. campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel.

“Get your popcorn,” he quipped.

There’s not enough popcorn in the world. Also, I am unreasonably amused by the fact that Uline’s director of legal affairs is named “Larry Barry”. I cannot wait for this trial to begin.

Supreme Court hears TDP-KSP appeal

Here‘s a little blast from the past.

A meandering legal dispute between Texas Democrats and a Houston tea party group has landed before the Texas Supreme Court in a case that could overturn longtime election laws that require certain political committees to disclose donors and ban direct political contributions from corporations.

Arguing before the court Tuesday, the Democrats’ lawyer, Chad Dunn, warned that overturning the laws would open “the floodgates to the secret funding of elections.”

“If this court wants to open the political process to Uber and Lyft and Exxon and Pinterest and other corporations to use corporate profits to determine who ought to prevail in (campaigns), it should tread carefully,” Dunn said.

[…]

The case began when the Texas Democratic Party filed a 2010 lawsuit accusing King Street Patriots of making illegal contributions to the Republican Party and GOP candidates by training poll watchers who were provided to the party to monitor the 2010 general election in Harris County.

The lawsuit also accused the tea party-aligned group of failing to register as a political committee and failing to disclose its donors as required.

King Street Patriots countersued, arguing that several state election laws were unconstitutional, and both sides agreed to have the courts decide if the laws were enforceable before determining if the organization violated any of them.

A Travis County district judge and the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals have upheld the challenged election laws, leading to the Supreme Court’s review.

King Street Patriots argues that state donor-disclosure laws place onerous burdens on small organizations by requiring them to register with the state, keep records and file extensive, ongoing reports — leaving many to avoid participating in politics as “simply not worth it.”

See here and here for some background. I think the KSP’s First Amendment argument in favor of secret political donations is a load of hooey, but in a Citizens United world, I wouldn’t be too sure it isn’t a winner. I will just note for the record that there is a connection between the KSP and Gregg Phillips, the longtime grifter and procurer of that baloney “millions of illegal voters” claim, because of course there is. There’s never a bottom with these people. The story says that we should expect a ruling by June, so stay tuned.

Former HISD Trustee Marshall found liable in civil bribery lawsuit

Ouch.

A bribery lawsuit that kept a cloud of suspicion over the Houston school district for six years ended Wednesday with a jury finding that former board president Larry Marshall participated in a kickback scheme that caused millions of dollars in damages to a local construction contractor.

The civil jury decided in favor of the Gil Ramirez Group, an upstart firm that alleged it lost lucrative school district contracts because it did not offer bribes to Marshall through his political campaign treasurer and longtime friend, Joyce Moss-Clay.

The verdict, which may be appealed, deals a hit to Marshall’s legacy as one of the longest-serving and best-known Houston school trustees, who started as a teacher in 1955 and later worked to integrate the nation’s seventh-largest district.

“The culture of corruption at HISD took a serious blow today,” Kelly Greenwood Prather, an attorney for Gil Ramirez Jr., said after the verdict, which triggered tears of joy from her client.

The jury found that Marshall, Moss-Clay and two HISD construction contractors violated the civil racketeering law and awarded the Gil Ramirez Group about $451,500, an amount that is tripled to $1.4 million under law.

The jury also found the group interfered in contracts and awarded $3.4 million in punitive damages, plus $676,667 in actual damages.

The Houston Independent School District, dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit in 2015, distanced itself from Marshall Wednesday, issuing a statement that the district is not responsible for paying damages on the former trustee’s behalf.

HISD’s response could complicate the payout to the Gil Ramirez Group if Marshall lacks the funds.

Attorney Chad Dunn, also representing Ramirez, said he believed the district is liable for the damages.

“The school district spent millions of dollars defending Larry Marshall and now it wants to avoid its own responsibility,” Dunn said. “If this is a sign of the district’s response to the jury’s message, it’s pathetic.”

This lawsuit had been dismissed by the trial judge in 2013, then reinstated on appeal two years later. It’s a bit unclear what happens next, whether Marshall will appeal or HISD will be ordered to cover some of the judgment against him; there’s also a federal criminal investigation that’s still out there. What I do know is that Marshall, who had a sterling career as an educator, threw all that away as a school board trustee, and the stain he left on HISD as a whole through this ordeal – and he was far from the only one with dirty hands – will take a long time to remove. The Press has more.

MUDs and debt

Another story about the least-understood form of debt and taxation in Texas.

BagOfMoney

In Houston’s conservative suburbs, where local governments are loath to raise taxes, the thankless task of hiking revenues has fallen to hundreds of so-called municipal utility districts created for developers to finance water and sewage systems, roads and other amenities.

These MUDs, as they’re called, have virtually unlimited power in bright red, anti-tax Texas to sell bonds and levy property taxes.

The state’s leading tea party conservatives, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have championed their creation in what ethics reformers say is a clear example of special interest influence in Austin.

All told, lawmakers who carry bills creating MUDs and other water districts have collected $3.5 million in campaign contributions since 2001 from law firms that specialize in creating those districts on behalf of developers or do bond work on their multimillion-dollar deals, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found. The Chronicle used a state database to pinpoint which law firms work for water districts. The data doesn’t include developers, who also contribute large sums to legislators.

Both Hegar and Patrick say MUDs and other water districts have played a critical role in developing infrastructure and creating jobs. They deny campaign contributions have anything to do with the bills they’ve carried. But both also say they are concerned about surging property tax burdens levied by school districts, towns, cities, counties – and MUDs, their less accountable, largely anonymous first cousins.

MUDs and other water districts have to date issued more than $60  billion in outstanding debt and face almost no government oversight of their spending. While most voters know the names of their mayors and city council members, many have no idea who runs their local MUD – or even what a MUD is.

James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, wants the legislature to protect taxpayers by preventing local officeholders from “off-loading” the delivery of public services to MUDs and other “special purpose districts” that contribute to the property tax burden and often lack transparency.

See here for past blogging on this topic, and be sure to read the whole story. Anyone who is surprised by the connection between MUD law firms and the politicians who push MUDs should probably go lie down in a quiet room for awhile. I know one should never read the comments, but I was struck by the number of commenters on that story who basically accused the Chronicle of being “anti-development” for having written this. I don’t doubt that MUDs are an effective mechanism for spurring development in currently undeveloped placed. The question I have is whether this is the best way to spur development in currently undeveloped places (*) or if perhaps a better mechanism may exist. To put it another way, if we could emulate Metro’s bus system redesign and start with a blank map of Harris County and its governmental entities and undertake the task of reimagining them all from the ground up, would we want to design something that looks like what we have now, or would we go a different direction? Call me crazy, but I think we’d gravitate towards the latter. That doesn’t mean that we can easily or pragmatically move in a different direction from where we are now, but it is worth reminding ourselves that what we have now, with its heavy reliance on this unhealthily symbiotic relationship of officeholders and niche law firms, not to mention millions of dollars in debt being ratified by elections in which literally two people vote, is not the only possible option. The Chron’s Chris Tomlinson has more.

(*) There is of course the completely separate question about whether it is a good idea to spur development in undeveloped places at all, or whether it would be better to spur it in already-developed places, with more investment in transit and other non-car modes of travel. That is a conversation that is very much worth having, but it would make Dan Patrick’s head explode, and so it is unfortunately beyond the scope of this blog post.

Council approves proposed finance law changes

That was easy.

BagOfMoney

City Council approved changes to Houston’s campaign finance law Wednesday with no discussion, effectively doubling contribution limits per general election cycle and boosting the amount many candidates can reimburse themselves for personal loans.

The revisions, which go into effect Friday, are meant to clarify rules left unclear after the court struck down the city’s fundraising blackout last year and voters extended terms to four years from two years.

Rather than collecting a maximum of $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from political action committees per two-year election cycle, candidates will be allowed to raise that much during the first two years of their term, and then do so again during the second two years. The contribution cycle would reset if the candidate were forced into a runoff.

The new rules also permit council and controller candidates to repay themselves tens of thousands of dollars more for personal loans they make to their campaigns.

Mayor Sylvester Turner reiterated during a news conference Wednesday that the changes are intended to reconcile the old two-year fundraising cycle with the current four-year cycle, though some viewed the modifications as a boon to incumbents and wealthy candidates.

“That was just an attempt to try to just mirror what has been the case and simply just adapt it to a four-year term,” Turner said.

See here for the background. This must not have been too controversial, because no one even tagged it. CMs Christie and Edwards were the only No votes. The Chron editorial board does not approve.

Contribution limits are supposed to serve as a check on corruption, but good government advocates aren’t the only people who support them. One of the odd little secrets of politics is that a lot of campaign donors actually like these rules. The disgraceful truth is that writing fundraising checks to elected officials is widely considered an unavoidable cost of doing business with government, so quite a few lobbyists will privately tell you they wish contribution limits were even lower.

Last year, in the same election that put Sylvester Turner in the mayor’s office, Houstonians voted to change the city’s term limits. Instead of holding municipal elections every two years and limiting elected officials to a maximum of three terms in office, voters opted for holding elections every four years and a maximum of two terms.

If you cast a ballot in that term-limits referendum, you might have reasonably assumed the new, longer terms also meant city politicians could drag the sack for campaign cash only once every four years. But if that’s what you thought, dear voter, you’ve been bamboozled.

In a cynical act of self-preservation, Houston’s mayor and City Council Wednesday adopted new campaign finance rules that essentially double the maximum contributions they can collect from each individual donor and political action committee before any election. Even though voters decided to let them stay in office four years between elections, our city’s elected leadership bestowed upon themselves the right to squeeze donors for campaign checks every two years.

I just don’t feel that strongly about it, mostly because I don’t think the amounts involved will have any effect on the outcome of elections. I agree that the way this ordinance was written it gives an advantage to incumbents. Simply doubling the amount that could be raised in a four-year period rather than allowing the same amount to be raised twice would have made it easier for challengers to keep up. I wonder if the donor class, who I agree would rather not have to write more checks if they can avoid it, will necessarily play along. As I noted before, it was already the case that very few PACs made the maximum $10K donation that had been allowed to candidates. Just because they can give more in our now-longer election cycle doesn’t mean that they will. As always, we’ll have to keep an eye on the finance reports to see what effect there is from this.

Mayor proposes raising contribution limits

Not sure how I feel about this.

BagOfMoney

Incumbents and wealthy candidates would get more of an advantage under proposed changes to Houston’s campaign finance law, which would effectively double contribution limits per general election cycle and allow many candidates who pour money into their own campaigns to recoup more of that cash.

The modifications, reviewed Thursday by the City Council’s budget and fiscal affairs committee, are designed to clear up rules left ambiguous after the city’s fundraising blackout was ruled unconstitutional last year and voters extended terms to four years from two years.

The looser regulations would allow candidates to raise twice as much from individuals and political action committees ahead of the general election, by splitting the four-year term into two two-year contribution cycles. That means that rather than collecting a maximum of $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from political action committees per election, office seekers would be able to raise that amount during the first two years of their term, and then do so again during the second two years. The cycle would reset again if a candidate were forced into a runoff.

Mayor Sylvester Turner framed the proposed changes as an effort to maintain continuity with the city’s old two-year election cycle, though some viewed them as a way for incumbents to boost their financial advantage.

With the changes, Turner said, “any person can’t give any more in four years than they would have been able to give under two two-year terms.”

The proposed new rules – which would go into effect July 1 if approved by the council next week – also would permit council and controller candidates to reimburse themselves tens of thousands of dollars more for personal loans.

[…]

Local fundraiser James Cardona criticized the changes as “incumbent protection”.

“It’s not a win for the city in elections,” Cardona said. “Now, you have incumbents getting double (maximum contributions) going into an election. … How’s the little guy going to fight that off?”

Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer agreed the new rules would favor incumbents.

“As a practical matter, you don’t declare for office four years in advance,” he said.

Turner countered that if a challenger wants to run, he or she can start raising money immediately.

“They may look and see what I’m doing, may decide, ‘We’re not going to wait. We want to just get started right now.’ They have that right,” Turner said. “We’re not holding anybody in abeyance or holding them back.”

On the one hand, it does seem reasonable to reflect the fact that we have four-year cycles now instead of two-year cycles in our fundraising rules. Anyone who is ambitious enough to launch a campaign early in the cycle can take advantage of this, which is consistent with the earlier court ruling that tossed out the blackout period. The total amount of money in questions is probably less than you think – while there are plenty of $5K max individual donors, there are only a handful of $10K PAC donations in a given cycle as far as I can tell from looking through all the finance reports as I do. Those who do well with the usual large-check-writing suspects will likely be able to add $50K to $100K to their overall totals. That isn’t nothing, but a decent chunk of that will wind up going to overhead expenses like campaign consultants, and what’s left will likely wind up as an extra couple of mailers. No one is going to take over the airwaves with that kind of money.

That said, this absolutely will benefit incumbents. Jay Aiyer is right, in practice no one starts campaigning that early, though I suppose that could change over time as everyone gets used to the four-year terms. Continuing to limit the donations to $5K for individuals and $10K for PACs per two years seems reasonable, but it does mean that anyone who isn’t already raising money early on will still be limited to the original amounts. If we want to level the field a bit more for later entrants, get rid of two-year periods for the limits and just allow individuals to give a total of $10K and PACs a total of $20K per candidate over each four-year cycle. I’m not sure what the every-two-years aspect of this is supposed to achieve. If we are going to change the limits, this is how I’d prefer to do it. Campos has more.

Another FEC complaint filed against Cruz

We’re up to two.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

The Texas Democrats have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz and his associates violated campaign finance laws.

The complaint, dated April 22, asserts that Cruz national co-chair, J. Keet Lewis, broke election laws at an official campaign fundraiser in December by asking attendees to donate unlimited amounts, as well as to make corporate contributions to the pro-Cruz Stand for Truth PAC.

Cruz and his wife, Heidi, reportedly attended the Dec. 30 event in Dallas.

Federal law prohibits coordination between candidates and Super PACs. While a candidate or agent of a candidate can solicit donors to a PAC, it is illegal for them to solicit unlimited contributions or corporate contributions to a Super PAC. They can only solicit up to $5,000 from individuals.

The Texas Democrats say Lewis clearly violated those terms when he told donors “If you hit your max then we have a table for you that is the unlimited table. It can take corporate dollars, it can take partnership dollars, and that’s the Super PAC, Stand for Truth…” according to the complaint.

Lewis also said “The method to our madness is this: You max out and then get engaged in the Super PAC,” the filing states.

Lewis has denied wrongdoing and told Politico, which reported the potential violation earlier this month, that he is not an agent of the campaign under federal standards. Lewis was one of roughly 50 co-hosts. Texas Democrats argue that he is, given his national co-chair role.

A copy of the complaint is here. As the story notes, there was another complaint filed with the FEC against the Cruz campaign in January, this one alleging that he failed to disclose financial support from Goldman Sachs and Citibank for his 2012 Senate campaign. I have no idea what the timetable is for either of these, but I won’t be surprised if they are not concluded till after the campaign. The Trib has more.

The Rodeo had an extra clown this year

OK, it was a rodeo in Mississippi, but I wasn’t going to ruin a good headline. The point is, that clown’s name was Sid Miller.

Sid Miller

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller used a combination of taxpayer money and campaign funds to fly to Mississippi last year to compete in a rodeo for prize money, according to newly obtained records.

Miller spent nearly $2,000 in state and campaign cash on the three-day trip to Jackson, Miss., in February 2015, in the middle of last year’s legislative session, records show. He used an agriculture department credit card for the airplane flights and a campaign account card for a hotel room and a rental car.

Weeks later, he wrote a check from his campaign account to reimburse the state for the flights, according to department records.

During the trip, Miller spent two days competing in calf-roping events at the horse show at the Dixie National Rodeo, according to the Mississippi Quarter Horse Association. He won $880.

Miller did not have any scheduled meetings or events other than the horse show, according to his calendar.

“It was a personal trip so he could compete in a rodeo,” Texas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.

State law prohibits officeholders from using state money or campaign funds for travel that is primarily personal in nature.

Miller said the trip did not violate the law.

The agriculture commissioner acknowledged that he decided to go to Mississippi so he could compete in the horse show but said that after making that plan, he tried to set up a work meeting. He said he paid for the airplane flights with state money because he thought the meeting would happen but acknowledged it never actually was scheduled.

It was still a justifiable campaign expense, Miller said, because while at the horse show he spoke with the Mississippi agriculture commissioner and several rodeo participants and vendors who had donated to his campaign.

[…]

Ethics experts said the trip would be problematic if Miller benefited personally from state money or campaign donations.

Ross Fischer, a former Texas Ethics Commission chairman, pointed to a 1996 commission ruling that politicians cannot use even campaign money “if the primary purpose of the trip is personal.”

Buck Wood, a former state elections official, said “the fact that he ran into some people at the rodeo does not change the fact that the purpose of the trip was to compete in a rodeo.”

As noted later in the story, Miller’s office did not initially release emails relating to this trip, just as they did not originally release emails relating to his illicit trip to Oklahoma, for which a complaint has been filed. It was only later, when a more specific request that included references to the Mississippi rodeo was filed that they coughed up these emails. At this point, we have to conclude that there is a pattern of behavior here, and that Miller just can’t help himself. He’s a grifter, he’s using this office to live his best life, and what are you going to do about it? It would be nice if someone were to ask Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Ken Paxton that question, and it would be even nicer if one of them deigned to reply. Trail Blazers has more.

How is Ken Paxton paying for his defense?

Nobody really knows. Well, nobody who isn’t Ken Paxton, anyway.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

How Paxton is paying for his criminal defense — a legal tab estimated to easily exceed a million dollars — is one of the ongoing puzzles in the case against the state’s top lawyer.

Beyond confirming he would not use campaign contributions or taxpayer dollars, which he cannot by law because the case is not related to his public duties, the McKinney Republican has declined to elaborate on how he is covering his legal expenses. Mateja did not respond to a request for comment.

Soliciting donations for a legal defense fund would be difficult without running afoul of the state’s bribery statutes prohibiting elected officials from receiving gifts from individuals or entities subject to their authority, which, in the case of the attorney general’s office, could be quite broad.

Paxton could be footing the bill personally. But it’s unclear whether that is an option for the former lawmaker, who earns about $153,000 a year as attorney general. Prior to taking statewide office in 2014, he served in the Legislature for more than a decade, making a living as a lawyer and investor. His 2015 personal financial statement, filed as a part of required disclosures for state officials, reported a number of business and real estate holdings, including a title company and cellular tower.

It’s tough to get a full picture of Paxton’s finances from the statement, which only requires officials to report broad ranges of assets. But it does indicate he has a number of shares in stocks and mutual funds, as well as business assets that amount to a minimum of $35,000.

If Paxton is unwilling or unable to pay his legal team on his own dime, it leaves him in a difficult spot. He could step down from office, which would free him up to raise money for a defense fund. But Paxton has said he will not resign — and he has so far faced no political pressure to do so.

He may find lawyers sympathetic to his plight willing to offer their services pro bono or at a deep discount. That scenario also seems unlikely. (Mateja did not respond to a question about whether any of Paxton’s legal team had discounted their services.)

“A case like Paxton’s could easily consume most, if not all, of a lawyer’s time. Unless the lawyer is independently wealthy, he or she could simply not afford to undertake such a time-consuming case without being paid significant fees,” said Dallas appellate lawyer Chad Ruback in an email. Ruback estimated that the collective rate for Paxton’s team could exceed $3,000 per hour, with a total fee for his defense easily passing one million dollars.

See here for the background. Is it in poor taste for me to note that Paxton could claim indigency and have an attorney provided for him? I’m sure Collin County will be delighted to help out. If anyone thinks this would be unfair to Paxton, I’d remind you that people have been represented by court-appointed attorneys in capital murder cases. Admittedly, that hasn’t always worked out well for the defendants, but as far as the state of Texas and more than a few appeals court justices are concerned, it was all hunky dory. I’m just saying, there is a way forward here that doesn’t involve murky ethics or potential conflicts of interest.

Lee’s campaign finances

Among other things, Commissioner El Franco Lee leaves behind a lot of money in his campaign finance account.

El Franco Lee

When Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee died unexpectedly Sunday, he left friends and allies in mourning, political hopefuls jockeying for his job and an uncommonly large campaign war chest of nearly $4 million.

What happens to that sum – which far outstrips the campaign cash held by all of his fellow commissioners combined – remains an open question.

All elected officials are required to disburse their political reserves after leaving office, but campaign finance experts said the present situation is unusual given the extent of Lee’s holdings, which his campaign treasurer now is tasked with distributing.

“This much money I’ve not seen before,” Austin campaign finance lawyer Buck Wood said.

Andrew Wheat, research director for the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, agreed.

“I can’t remember this question coming up,” Wheat said. “That’s an extraordinary amount of money for a county commissioner to be sitting on.”

[…]

State law dictates that Lee’s longtime friend and campaign treasurer, J. Kent Friedman, now must disseminate those leftover political funds to one or more of the following entities within the next six years: the Democratic Party, a candidate or political committee, a charity, a scholarship program at an institution of higher education, or the state treasury. He also may return money to Lee’s donors.

Friedman said he has not considered what to do with the late commissioner’s campaign account.

“I hadn’t even thought about it until you asked the question,” he said. “I haven’t given it three seconds’ worth of thought.”

I do have some thoughts on this, but in the spirit of decorum, I’ll demur for now. I do hope that when the time comes for decisions to be made that they are made with transparency. We should know what ultimately happens with these funds.

The incumbents’ advantage

Is it about to become that much harder to vote incumbent city officials out of office?

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

The already difficult task of ousting incumbent Houston officeholders likely has become even tougher.

City elected officials now have an extended runway to accumulate cash before returning to the campaign trail, thanks to a voter-approved extension of term limits and the elimination of Houston’s fundraising blackout during non-election seasons.

Experts agreed the changes could be a boon to incumbents, though were split over the magnitude of that boost.

“It’s huge, hugely significant,” Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer said. “We’re, basically, giving people an eight-year term.”

Local government finance lawyer Neil Thomas, however, characterized the shift as marginal.

“It certainly gives candidates and officeholders a longer period of time to raise funds, but incumbents always have an advantage,” Thomas said.

[…]

Under the new regulations, candidates will be allowed to solicit donations year-round, though the city’s $5,000 individual contribution limit and $10,000 cap for political action committees per election cycle remain. Thomas said that cap mitigates the impact of abolishing the blackout.

“I would think that any additional amounts that they might raise would really affect any advantage an incumbent might have only marginally, because the base limits still remain in effect,” Thomas said. “Yes, there may be some events that wouldn’t otherwise occur, but I don’t see any big change.”

Thomas and local fundraiser Pat Strong also noted that elected officials regularly draw down campaign funds for officeholder expenses, so not all of the money raised over four years necessarily will accumulate in the form of a campaign war chest.

“Now that they can raise money year-round, they can actually enhance their outreach by reaching into their campaign funds rather than relying on taxpayer funds to cover their officeholder expenses,” said Strong, who raised money for mayor-elect Sylvester Turner.

I think the individual and PAC contribution limit is a key mitigating factor here. Incumbents can hit up all the usual suspects for max contributions, but they can only do it once. I can tell you from my experience looking through finance reports that many PACs don’t come close to maxing out on most candidates. They may not care to, or they may not have the resources to be able to. That may actually change, since under the old system they were getting hit up twice as often in a four-year period. The point is, there’s only so much you can wring out of the frequent donors. Any candidate will still need a network of friends and associates and other like-minded folks to be able to raise the kind of cash that is needed to make oneself known in a city this size. You could argue that having four years to develop and exploit one’s network, with no restrictions on when you can ask for money, will benefit candidates who get out there and do the hard work of meeting and talking to people, especially if they can operate on a shoestring during the inactive time between elections.

But the truth is that we don’t know yet how this will play out. Hell, we haven’t even sworn in the first class of candidates elected under these new rules yet. Bear in mind that for a long time, it was virtually impossible to lose an election under the old term limits rules. From 1993 to 2009 – nine elections – only two incumbent candidates ever lost a re-election bid. In the next three elections, the last three of the two-year terms era, six incumbents lost. I guarantee you, nobody saw that coming. I suspect that with four year terms, the days of incumbents skating by with at most minimal opposition are over, because there are now fewer opportunities to run and less reason to wait till someone is termed out. I could be wrong about that – like I said, nobody really knows. Ask me again in 2019 and 2023 and we’ll see what we think then.

On judicial elections and campaign finance

Ross Ramsey raises an interesting point.

BagOfMoney

It might seem silly to elect people who promise they won’t represent you, their political party or their donors, but that’s what we expect judges to do. They’re supposed to apply the law, and if they do any of those other things, they’re probably out of line.

Florida elects judges but bars them from raising their own campaign money. Lots of Texas judges — and Texas lawyers —would love to see similar restraints here.

“If you are an incumbent judge and you call a lawyer and ask for money, what is that lawyer going to say? No?” asks Wallace Jefferson, a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court who now practices law in Austin. “That incumbent judge is going to raise more money. But no one should feel pressured to contribute.”

Better, he says, to take the judges out of the fundraising business and leave the transactional part of politics to campaign committees and others.

It could happen: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Florida’s law [in April] after challengers said it violated their First Amendment rights. That court was also concerned with whether asking for money sullied the impartiality of the elected judges. The court decided that was a serious enough public interest to justify the fundraising restriction.

“Simply put, the public may lack confidence in a judge’s ability to administer justice without fear or favor if he comes to office by asking for favors,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

[…]

This legislative session, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed a bill that would start public financing of campaigns for appellate judges in Texas. It was sent to the House Elections Committee on March 9 and never heard from again.

Sen. and former state District Judge Joan Huffman, R-Houston, has a bill that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in judicial races — the idea is to free judges from the slings and arrows of party politics. That one is stalled, as is its identical twin in the House, filed by Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas.

Jefferson and Tom Phillips, who preceded him as the Texas high court’s chief justice, wrote an amicus brief in the federal case, along with a couple of former chiefs of Alabama’s Supreme Court. “As former Chief Justices who have observed countless elections in our own States, and run as candidates for judicial office, we are well-acquainted with the genuine dangers — and sometimes actual abuse — present when judicial candidates personally solicit campaign contributions from parties and lawyers,” they wrote.

Now that the Florida law has been upheld, Jefferson thinks “it would be a step in the right direction” for Texas to take judges out of the campaign fundraising business.

“To me, money is not in the center except to the extent that the public believes, if a judge is accepting money from a lawyer or litigant, that they’ll be more likely to favor that lawyer or litigant,” Jefferson says. “I don’t believe that is generally true, but the public believes it. And I understand that belief. It undermines the ideal of impartial justice.”

I have been critical of Wallace Jefferson in the past for promoting the non=solution of making judicial elections non-partisan while ignoring the real problem of how judicial races are financed, so let me compliment him here for his advocacy for doing something about that problem. Pigs will fly before the Lege passes a bill allowing any kind of public financing of elections, but it’s still worth pursuing (kudos to Rep. Anchia for filing a bill this session to do that). If Jefferson, Tom Phillips, and Nathan Hecht can all support this, a bill like Rep. Anchia’s could get bipartisan support. The money people will fight it to the death, but that’s a fight we should all be willing to engage. Let’s get a nice long list of coauthors for this bill next time.

Ethics reform dies its expected death

The only surprise is that it took this long.

BagOfMoney

With no collective will to expose dark money contributions in Texas, a major ethics overhaul was snuffed out in the waning hours of the 2015 legislative session.

“It’s dead,” Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said Saturday afternoon. “When the Senate chose not to include campaign disclosure reform at all, there’s really no reason to go forward. That was the most important thing from the House’s perspective.”

Cook was referring to the dark money provision that would require politically active nonprofits, which have poured millions into state and federal elections in recent years, to disclose their donors.

Hoping to find a last-ditch compromise, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who pushed the reform effort through the state Senate, wrote a letter urging House members to strike a deal by passing what both chambers have already agreed on. But that didn’t include the dark money amendment — an idea that has pitted Republicans against each other.

Taylor, along with Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Senate, have been unwilling to embrace any restrictions on the anonymously contributed money, which influential conservatives have fought to keep secret. Last session, then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill requiring disclosure of dark money and Abbott applauded him for it.

“The fact that folks are championing dark money is amazing to me,” Cook said.

Taylor offered two different versions of a compromise to a joint House-Senate “conference committee,” made up of negotiators from each chamber. Neither had dark money restrictions in it, but they would have strengthened considerably the disclosures of legislative conflicts of interest, shed more light on lobbyist wining and dining, and required lawmakers to reveal more sources of their income.

“While we disagree on substance, it is our hope that the House shares our desire to be accountable to the people we serve,” Taylor wrote. “It would be an embarrassing failure of leadership if the House opts to let this important legislation die in conference committee, especially during a session [that’s] supposed to be devoted to strengthening the ethical standards of elected officials. Texans expect us to deliver.”

With a Sunday night deadline for bills to be passed looming, a handful of ethics proposals remain viable, including a proposal shedding more light on elected officials who make money from local governments and another bill closing the “double-dipping” loophole that longtime politicians can use — as Perry once did — to draw a salary and pension at the same time.

But those minor tweaks are a far cry from the sweeping reforms that Abbott called for on the campaign trail and again in February, when he told lawmakers during his state of the state address that he wanted to “dedicate this session to ethics reform.”

Remember when Greg Abbott was all about “major” ethics reform? Those were the days. Surely none but the most gullible among us believed it in the first place, but even if one held on to a thread of hope, surely his lack of any leadership on the issue during the session told us all the real story. The fact that “dark money” regulations got this far tells me that it is possible for real ethics reform to happen – Republicans are the bigger targets of this kind of campaign spending these days, so it’s not really a straight partisan issue – but in the absence of actual leadership from the Governor’s office, it will probably take a major (and well-timed) scandal for it to happen. Good luck with that.

Or maybe it is hopeless, at least as things now stand:

All that Republican infighting about revealing political “dark money” during the just-concluded session of the Texas Legislature was probably for naught.

Gov. Greg Abbott has come out firmly against the idea.

Speaking at a news conference Monday in the Capitol, Abbott said he had already written about the issue when he was on the Texas Supreme Court, telling reporters that legislation requiring secret political donors to come out of the shadows would violate the U.S. Constitution. Proponents of dark money disclosure dispute the claim.

“I’ve already written about it as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court,” Abbott said. “I wrote that laws like that are unconstitutional, and I based that decision on United States Supreme Court decisions, and I think it’s important for legislators not to try to pass laws that have already been ruled unconstitutional.”

Abbott stopped short of saying that he would’ve vetoed a dark money disclosure bill if it had reached his desk, but his opposition makes any such legislation a remote possibility. Opposition from influential conservative groups that use dark money to fund their campaign activities hasn’t helped the pro-disclosure crowd much, either.

[…]

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, assistant professor at the Stetson University College of Law, wrote in a 2011 scholarly paper that Citizens United and another landmark case known as Doe vs. Reed give “considerable leeway” for legislators to require disclosure of money used to influence elections.

“In other words, the Supreme Court just expanded the constitutional bounds for requiring disclosure of the funding of election-related speech, and states should use this license to expand their disclosure laws accordingly,” she wrote.

Which only goes to show that Abbott was a lousy legal scholar who fit the law to his opinions. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

And just when you think it couldn’t get any more ridiculous:

It’s no secret that Texas legislators make poverty wages — $7,200 a year to be exact — so they generally must have some other source of income to make ends meet.

A look at Sen. Joan Huffman’s 2014 ethics disclosures, however, doesn’t shed much light on that: All she lists for “occupational income” is her Senate salary. Combined with some stock dividends, the grand total of disclosed income comes to no more than about $12,000 a year — even though the Houston Republican reported living in a River Oaks home appraised at $3.2 million.

One explanation for the gap might stem from something that’s not included in her ethics reports: any mention of the income or vast business holdings of her husband, nightclub owner and manager Keith Lawyer, who is tied to dozens of businesses with current or past filings at the office of the Texas secretary of state. Lawyer briefly became an issue in the Houston Republican’s 2008 Senate race, amid reports that Huffman received heavy support from interests tied to liquor, gambling and nightclubs.

Huffman says she has fully complied with state disclosure laws. And she lists interests in one business entity, a ranch partnership she owns with her husband, on her 2014 report.

But the Houston senator’s last-minute advocacy of controversial amendments widening the so-called “spousal loophole” — quietly slipped onto bills that were supposed to increase transparency — will make it even harder for voters to untangle the finances of their elected representatives in Austin.

Meanwhile, her role in pushing for the changes has sparked criticism from government watchdogs and her former Democratic opponent.

“This amendment does not suggest that she is interested in allowing constituents, Texans, or other legislators who are voting on bills she may bring or sponsor or champion, [to] know anything about areas in which she may have a conflict of interest,” said Rita Lucido, a Houston lawyer and Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Huffman last year.

Huffman said in an interview on Saturday night that she did not push the change in the law to shield her husband’s business interests from public view. And she said she has always disclosed what state ethics laws says she must.

“I think I report exactly what I’m required to report under the law, and I will continue to do so and follow the law utterly to its exact requirement,” she said.

Asked if she could afford to live on the limited income she reports on her ethics reports, Huffman said: “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

All together now: It’s what’s legal that’s the real scandal. Thanks for illustrating that so clearly to us, Joan. More here from the Trib and from the Lone Star Project, and a joint statement from TPJ and Public Citizen is here.

Feldman’s parting memo

Outgoing City Attorney David Feldman shares his thoughts on the state of the city’s campaign finance rules as he makes his exit.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

City Hall began its attempt to use a federal court ruling declaring its own election rule unconstitutional to its advantage it in a second, unrelated suit in a letter this week.

In the below memo to City Council on Thursday, City Attorney David Feldman argues that the U.S. District Judge’s ruling last week that tossed the city’s blackout period had a broad impact: It invalidated the concerns of Chris Bell, a mayoral candidate suing the city for not strictly enough enforcing campaign finance rules.

In the four-paragraph letter, Feldman writes that case law is building that governments cannot outlaw campaign spending merely for its own sake. And Feldman says that without the previous restriction on when candidates can raise money, there is no reasonable challenge to be made by Bell as to why Rep. Sylvester Turner, Bell’s opponent, can’t spend it.

Turner is not merely attempting to spend money, however, but transfer it. He eventually hopes to transfer almost all of the $1 million in his legislative account to a to-be-created mayoral account. Bell believes that Turner’s legislative account should be able to only donate $10,000, the maximum that any political action committee can contribute in a city election.

See here and here for the background, and click that Houston Politics link to see the memo. Not a whole lot to add here, though I should mention that while I believe Turner should be able to transfer his funds as he sees fit (Bell will likely file suit over that), that outcome would be a raw deal for Chris Bell. I’m sure he would have been raising money last year if he could have, and the late-breaking injunction against the blackout rule not only doesn’t give him much time back to catch up, there are now more candidates out there that may be competing with him for the money. But that’s the way it goes, and if Bell manages to get a favorable ruling in his lawsuit, it’s Turner that will be in a world of hurt. You know what they say about the fairness of life.

City does a 180 on campaign finances

Not all losses in court are created equal.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

City officials will argue that the city’s election ordinance is unconstitutional as part of a strategy to strengthen their position in a lawsuit that could shape the early stages of this year’s mayor’s race.

After defending the city Monday in civil court, City Attorney David Feldman said he would write an opinion explaining to the City Council why its fundraising “blackout” rule is unconstitutional. A federal judge on Friday ruled that law likely violated the First Amendment.

A separate lawsuit by likely mayoral candidate Chris Bell, the subject of a hearing in state court Monday, accused the city of failing to strictly enforce its fundraising law. Feldman intends to take advantage of the ruling in the federal case to convince the judge in the Bell lawsuit that Bell no longer has a case.

The strategy, hatched in closed chambers by Feldman after more than an hour of heated debate in the 165th District Court, amounts to the city capitalizing on its own loss just days before.

“In the first instance, we have some obligation to defend the constitutionality of (city) ordinances,” Feldman said in an interview following Monday’s hearing. “But we have a ruling from a federal district court judge that the blackout period is unconstitutional. I believe he is correct.”

See here for the background. When the city said it would not fight the injunction in that case, they weren’t kidding. One wonders how enthusiastically they would have adopted the arguments from the Gordon lawsuit that they had previously opposed if the ruling hadn’t been handed down before this case went to court. Timing is everything in this life.

City officials said Friday’s decision made Bell’s lawsuit moot. If no blackout period is in effect, then Turner’s fundraising during that period is proper, the city argued, and there is no need to transfer any money.

Bell said he would challenge Friday’s decision in a new lawsuit in federal court.

It’s my understanding that there is a separate ordinance that regulates the transfer of funds from one account to another, and it is this ordinance, which was not addressed in the Gordon lawsuit, that is at issue here. That’s my understanding, and I’m not a lawyer, so if you know better please say so in the comments. Be that as it may, I do broadly agree that if the blackout period is illegal, then it makes no sense for Turner to be barred from transferring the money he raised in his State Rep account to a Mayoral account. He would have been raising Mayoral money last year if he could have been. Campos and Houston Politics (tangentially) have more.

Injunction granted against Houston fundraising blackout period

It’s a whole new ballgame out there.

Trebor Gordon

Trebor Gordon

A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked a law limiting when candidates in Houston municipal elections can raise money, prompting a scramble to contact donors sooner than campaigns had intended.

The injunction, two months after a City Council candidate said the law infringed on his constitutional rights, could reorder the timeline for future elections and accelerate this year’s mayoral race – the first without an incumbent since 2009.

An ordinance prevented city candidates from raising money prior to Feb. 1. But hours after the ruling from U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, some mayoral campaigns said they were planning fundraisers and placing calls to donors who were thought to be off-limits for three more weeks.

“There’s not that many days, but political calendars will start to shift based on this ruling,” said Mustafa Tameez, a longtime Democratic consultant. “It creates more pressure for people to announce sooner.”

The lawsuit against the city, filed by candidate Trebor Gordon, argued that his First Amendment right to political expression authorized him to raise money for his campaigns whenever his contributors wished to donate. Lake said in the order that Gordon was likely to succeed on the merits in the case.

“It’s a great victory for the First Amendment,” said Jerad Najvar, the attorney for Gordon, who plans to begin raising funds immediately. “It’s a bigger matter than just this campaign.”

See here and here for the background, and here for Judge Lake’s ruling. This is only an injunction – the merits of the case have not been decided – but it seems clear from that ruling that Gordon is very likely to prevail. I won’t be surprised if the city, which has chosen to accept this ruling rather than appeal it, seeks a settlement. In the meantime, anyone that has filed a designation of treasurer for the 2015 elections can start raising money now. If your mailbox is still a smoldering wreck from all the solicitations it had to handle last year, its brief period of respite is now officially over. You have been warned.

As I’ve said before, I think this was the correct ruling. I also think it will benefit incumbents more than challengers, but we’ll see. The January finance reports will be posted soon, so we’ll get a picture of where things stood going into the year – in particular, who had an advantage prior to the opening of what had been the fundraising season – but the July finance reports will tell the story. We’ll need to look for all donations made in January and see who took the biggest advantage of this change in the rules.

One more thing:

Still unclear Friday was how the decision would affect a separate lawsuit filed by likely candidate Chris Bell, who charges that Rep. Sylvester Turner’s fundraising strategy violates the ordinance. Bell’s attorney said Friday afternoon that he still planned to follow through with his suit, which will be heard in court Monday.

See here for the background on that. The crux of that issue is whether Turner, and possibly Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who were free to raise all the money they wanted for their non-city campaign accounts under the old rules, could then transfer those funds to accounts to be used for a city election. Then-City Attorney David Feldman said that they could, and Bell filed suit to stop it. I’m hard pressed to see how Bell prevails here, but let’s wait and see what arguments he and his attorney present in court.

First city campaign finance lawsuit action this week

As you may recall, City Council candidate Trebor Gordon filed a lawsuit last month alleging that the city of Houston’s campaign fundraising blackout period was illegal. This week, a federal judge is expected to rule on a request for a temporary injunction that would suspend that ordinance.

Trebor Gordon

Trebor Gordon

In court filings, Gordon argues that the abridged timeline makes it impossible for a political challenger to amass the financial wherewithal to unseat an incumbent with a war chest. The city counters that the blackout period is essential to preventing corruption and that nothing stops Gordon from working the stump before asking for checks.

“Campaigning is a larger universe than simply soliciting and accepting donations,” the city attorneys argued in court filings. “Gordon is not prohibited right now from spreading his ideas and seeking support. He simply chooses not to.”

[…]

Gordon and his attorney, campaign finance lawyer Jerad Najvar, sharply disagree, charging that any campaign is feeble and futile until the candidate has the money to execute it.

“A candidate may decide that it would be counterproductive to make sporadic statements via social media before he has amassed enough resources to properly roll out a campaign,” Najvar said in court papers. “This is the kind of tactical decisions that candidates can make with their advisers, without the need for spitballing by government lawyers.”

The current blackout period, they say, is merely a “paternalistic” way for the powerful to insulate themselves from challengers and does little to prevent quid-pro-quo corruption by city officials. In Gordon’s eyes, a contribution is political expression, and Gordon has a constitutional right to serve as the vehicle for his donors’ opinions.

Plaintiffs also note that the fundraising window is unfair. Candidates who currently hold non-city office – such as likely mayoral contenders Rep. Sylvester Turner and Harris County Sherriff Adrian Garcia – can raise money while others cannot and then potentially transfer the money to their city campaign accounts after Feb. 1.

That raise-and-transfer strategy, conducted openly by Turner and approved by City Hall, is the subject of a second lawsuit to be heard in mid-January.

I’ve said before, I think Gordon’s case has merit. Other cities don’t have a similar blackout period, and the Legislature’s blackout is for when they are in session, five months every two years, while Council is in session year-round. One can certainly argue that the 14-month prohibition on fundraising for Council is arbitrary and far too broad. In John Roberts’ America, it’s hard to see how that argument loses.

[Lobbyist Robert] Miller said that if the blackout period is declared unconstitutional, it would make irrelevant when Turner, considered the favorite in the field, raised the donations. He also disagreed with Najvar that allowing donations year round would disadvantage incumbents.

“With term limits, they know that once they win their first election, they only got two more so they’ll be focused,” he said. “There are no incumbents that you’re going to be sneaking up on.”

Here I agree with Miller. Who else has a reason to fundraise during the first few months of even-numbered years? Sure, there are some candidates who know right after one election that they’re in for the next one, but that’s true for every single non-term-limited incumbent. I guarantee you, while a few select non-incumbents may benefit from this if the blackout period is struck down, the main effect you’ll see is greater cash on hand totals for current electeds each January.

Great moments in false equivalence

The headline reads Money from disputed tax bills flowing to candidates for top tax chief, and then the story tells us that more than 99% of that money is going to one of those candidates.

BagOfMoney

Business entities and taxpayers are pumping thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of candidates who, if elected state comptroller, would receive their tax-bill complaints.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office is charged with collecting state tax revenue and implementing state tax law. And even though the state auditor sought a ban on business contributions to comptroller candidates nine years ago, the Texas Legislature did not act and the practice prevails.

In this election cycle, businesses and lawyers with clients before the comptroller’s office have thrown more than $200,000 into the campaigns of two candidates seeking to replace Susan Combs: Republican state Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy and Houston-area accountant Mike Collier, a Democrat.

Public watchdog groups see a potential conflict of interest.

“As long as we’re going to have comptrollers running on partisan political tickets, it’s almost impossible to filter out which contributions might not have an interest in the comptroller’s office,” said Craig McDonald, head of Texans for Public Justice.

Collier hasn’t received a lot of cash from entities with a stake in tax cases. Of the $200,000 he’s raised, only $1,500 comes from employees of ExxonMobil and BP, two energy firms with disputes before the Comptroller’s Office. He said he’d be open to legislative action barring contributions from donors with active cases with the office, but wouldn’t cut those donations out of his coffers.

“Because I’m the underdog and I’m trying to throw out the trench politicians, I’ll take money from anybody who’ll give it to me,” Collier said.

Hegar has snagged more than 10 percent of the more than $2 million he’s raised from businesses or firms with clients with active tax cases.

So in other words, of the “more than $200,000” that has been raised by the Comptroller candidates from people and firms that have business before the Comptroller’s office, at least $200,000 of it went to Glenn Hegar, while all of $1,500 went to Mike Collier. This is like saying that the Aaron brothers, Hank and Tommie, combined to hit 768 home runs in their career. One of the two contributed a lot more to the bottom line than the other. Oh, and well done on the “more than 10 percent of the more than $2 million” bit, which not only obscures the actual total (how much more than ten percent? how much more than $2 million?) it also surely confuses the more math-phobic readers about how much Hegar collected to the point where they have no idea that it’s way, way more than Collier. An impressive performance all around.

By the way, companies like BP and ExxonMobil have lots and lots of employees. Very few of those employees would have any role in or influence over the dispute process with the Comptroller’s office. Unless the BP and ExxonMobil employees cited above that donated to Mike Collier are among that small group, then the whole premise that “both candidates” are benefiting from contributions of entities and their representatives that have business before the Comptroller’s office is shot. Details, details.

The point of the story is that in 2005, a report by the Texas State Auditor showed that 750 taxpayers received $461 million in tax credits and refunds from the comptroller’s office less than a year after they or their representatives had made a contribution to then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. This was a key attack point by Rick Perry against Strayhorn in the 2006 campaign. That auditor’s report recommended that legislation be passed to the Comptroller or candidates for Comptroller from receiving campaign contributions from anyone that had a dispute pending with the office. Needless to say, nothing happened then, and nothing will happen in 2015. But at least now we’ve been reminded of the issue, and the Chronicle figured out a way to make numbers that are two orders of magnitude apart sound similar. So there’s that.

Steve Stockman’s ongoing FEC issues

“Steve Stockman” and “ethical issues” go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Steve Stockman doing his best Joe Cocker impersonation

For a congressman who has overseen four campaign committees in two decades, Rep. Steve Stockman is having a hard time dissolving his troubled congressional campaign.

Now a lame duck, the Clear Lake Republican first tried on April 16 to terminate Friends of Congressman Steve Stockman, the committee he used before challenging Sen. John Cornyn in the recent Republican Senate primary. But the Federal Election Commission refused to allow the termination, sending two letters last week to the Stockman campaign.

The first threatened legal action. At issue were contributions the campaign had received in the last quarter of 2013 and earmarked for expenses related to the 2014 general election. But by challenging Cornyn, Stockman relinquished any chance of being on the ballot to represent the 36th Congressional district in November 2014.

“Since the candidate is not seeking office and will not participate in the general election, any contribution received for the general election must be returned to the donors,” the FEC’s letter reads. “Although the Commission may take further legal action, your prompt action to refund these contributions will be taken into consideration.”

Stockman’s campaign apparently owes Rep. Eric Cantor’s PAC $5,000, which he may or may not be able to pay back because his campaign has no money, according to its most recent filings. Except that his most recent filings were riddled with errors and omissions, which is what the second letter is about. Maybe the next time he runs for something, the FEC should just provide a babysitter for his campaign to handle all this complicated stuff for him. He’s clearly not capable of doing it on his own.

The money is the problem

A story of interest from North Carolina.

BagOfMoney

The ad first appeared on television the Friday before last, a black-and-white spot charging that Justice Robin Hudson coddled child molesters and “sided with the predators” in a North Carolina Supreme Court dissent. It has run constantly since.

As notable as the ad’s content and frequency, though, is its source. It was created and aired not by one of Justice Hudson’s two opponents in Tuesday’s primary election, but by a group that had just received $650,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington, which pools donations from corporations and individuals to promote conservatives in state politics and is now broadening its scope to target judicial races.

The sums have been unusual for such elections. The primary race for Justice Hudson’s Supreme Court seat alone has drawn more than $1 million — the bulk of it by independent groups including the Republican committee and an arm of the state Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $250,000 to promote both of her opponents with money from companies including Reynolds American, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Koch Industries.

[…]

Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C., which is tracking spending and television ads, said, “The sitting justice could be primaried out because of this avalanche of independent spending on behalf of the two conservative candidates.”

Justice Hudson has raised a few hundred thousand dollars and spent $86,000 fielding a defensive ad. She has been spending long days attending breakfasts and barbecue benefits across the state’s 100 counties, seeking to build her name recognition and fire up supporters to vote in a primary where they may not see much at stake.

[…]

Judges on higher courts are elected rather than appointed in 22 states, and in 16 more they must face retention elections at some point after their selection, according to Justice at Stake, an advocacy group in Washington. Corporations and political parties — and trial lawyers and unions — seek ideologically compatible state judges, legal experts say, because their rulings can affect redistricting and laws on such key issues as liability, medical malpractice and workers’ compensation.

The growing influx of interest group spending is transforming judicial elections and raising concerns about conflicts of interest. In 2012, $30 million was spent nationwide on television advertising for state court races, often involving attack ads, according to a report last fall by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“Judicial races are getting swamped in this tidal wave of political money,” said Bert Brandenburg, a former Justice Department official who is the executive director of Justice at Stake. The Republican state committee has already used North Carolina as a test case. In 2012, it financed ads extolling a sitting Supreme Court justice, Paul Newby, known to be a Republican, to help him beat back a challenge from Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, an appeals court judge and grandson of former Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., who died in 1985.

[…]

The explosion in outside funding is the latest development in a winding path for North Carolina’s judicial elections. In 2002, in an effort to curb spending and level the playing field, North Carolina, then under Democratic control, established public financing for races. It also said the races must be nonpartisan.

Emphasis mine. Did you hear that, Wallace Jefferson? This is happening in a state that already has non-partisan judicial elections. I’ve said all along that removing party labels from judicial candidates will do nothing to curb the influence of outside groups, and here’s the proof. North Carolina had a good idea, but recent Supreme Court decisions that have eviscerated campaign finance laws have rendered that idea moot. Until we do something about that, we’re not even tinkering around the edges. Link via Ed Kilgore.

As it happens, Judge Hudson made the cut in her primary and will be on the ballot in November, where I’m sure she’ll continue to face this kind of barrage. TheChron editorial board, in an otherwise laudable piece about the need for greater accountability among judges, also lamented the partisan election process for judges and pushed for an appointment-with-retention-elections system. Putting aside the fact that retention elections would have the same problems with big money that our current system has, you still have to design an appointment system that isn’t inherently political and also has the capacity to handle the thousand-plus elected judicial offices in Texas. As I keep saying every time this subject comes up, I don’t necessarily favor the system we now have. It has plenty of warts and weaknesses, no doubt about it. But all the would-be reformers I come across never mention the money issue, and they almost never discuss the pros and cons of their preferred alternative as well as the ones they don’t prefer. I’d be a lot more open to their suggestions if I felt like they they were honestly accounting for their positions instead of just dumping on the status quo. Convince me it’s a change for the better and not just a change for the sake of change. The system we have now may not be good, but that doesn’t mean that the alternatives would be an improvement.

Alameel wants a refund

Good luck with that.

David Alameel

David Alameel

Just like his first run for office in 2012, David Alameel’s second bid for public office is drawing questions about his past campaign donations.

Alameel, the owner of a multimillion-dollar chain of dental clinics that caters to Hispanics, is one of five Democrats vying for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican John Cornyn. In recent years, Alameel has emerged as one of the top donors to Democratic groups and candidates in the country. However, before 2010, his donations were more bipartisan. Over several years, he donated more than $750,000 to Republican candidates and groups, including $8,000 to Cornyn in 2004.

In a phone interview Monday, Alameel said he would not make the same donations to Republicans again.

“I want a refund right now because I believe John Cornyn and his Republican friends in Washington work for Wall Street and not Texans,” Alameel said. When asked if he regretted those earlier donations to Republicans, he reiterated that he wanted “a refund.”

Alameel said that his view of the Republican Party has changed in recent years.

“I used to think that Democrats and Republicans work together, but you know, it’s becoming more and more crystal clear that today’s Republican Party is far too extreme,” Alameel said. “John Cornyn is part of that extreme problem.”

Not clear from this story if he’s just asking for his $8K back from Cornyn or if he’s seeking to recover the whole enchilada. I kind of doubt it’s the latter, but if it is I don’t see how it happens. For that matter, Cornyn isn’t playing ball, either, and he does a nice bit of knife-twisting for good measure. Let this be a lesson about being careful to whom one makes political donations, kids.

There’s been a lot written about Alameel’s past history of political giving, with the Lone Star Project – a recipient of his largesse as well – highlighting his Dem-only track record since 2008, and the Maxer Scherr campaign understandably pushing his GOP donor history. Here’s a Google spreadhseet I’ve put together, based on a query of Alameel as a contributor, from January 1, 2000 forward, sorted chronologically. I’ve helpfully highlighted the Republican recipients, as best as I recognize them, for your convenience. As you can see, there are none after February of 2008, which is consistent with what the Lone Star Project has highlighted, but doesn’t explain the reasons behind the change.

I still haven’t gotten a date from Alameel’s campaign for an interview and at this point I’m not holding out much hope for one, so we’ll all have to decide for ourselves how sincere his apparent conversion is. At least by going from R to D no one can claim he’s doing it for the easier path to victory. Alameel has some other questions to answer as well, and I’m sorry I won’t get the chance to ask them, or to hear his answers for myself. I have no problem believing that Wendy Davis sees something worthwhile in Alameel, but I’m reserving my own judgment on that.

UPDATE: Sen. Leticia Van de Putte has endorsed Alameel, so she sees something in him as well.

Stockman and Bitcoin

Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, a Friendswood Republican with a history of flouting campaign finance laws, entered a new legal gray area this week when he announced his campaign can now accept donations in Bitcoin, a private virtual currency.

Stockman, who is challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in this year’s Republican primary, was attending an event promoting the NYC Bitcoin Center in New York’s financial district earlier this week when he told a reporter with Business Insider that his campaign could now accept Bitcoin donations. Stockman appeared to confirm the report by posting it on Facebook and Twitter.

Stockman isn’t the first politician to embrace Bitcoin, though he may be the first elected official to do so. Among the legal concerns about Bitcoin campaign donations is that the virtual currency makes it easier to make donations anonymously; federal campaign finance laws require candidates to reveal the names of their contributions. Few businesses currently accept Bitcoin though acceptance has been growing over the last year.

A spokesman with the Federal Elections Commission could not say whether Bitcoin donations are legal. In November, the FEC considered whether to explicitly allow federal candidates and political action committees to accept Bitcoin donations as in-kind donations. The committee deadlocked, 3-3. The commission has not taken up the issue since the November vote, a spokesman said.

Whether Stockman has actually received any Bitcoin donations is unclear. As of Friday morning, his campaign website’s donation page made no mention of Bitcoin. However, in a photo that has circulated online since Tuesday, Stockman is seen at the NYC Bitcoin Center event holding a poster with a scannable QR code on it. The code is a link to a Bitcoin account, but it is not clear if the account is Stockman’s campaign fund. Since Tuesday, the account has received Bitcoin payments worth more than $200.

When asked about the QR code in the photo in an email, NYC Bitcoin Center spokesman Hamdan Azhar wrote back, “Congressman Stockman’s office would probably be best suited to address your question.” A Stockman spokesman has not responded to inquiries about the QR code or whether the campaign has received any Bitcoin donations.

Fine by me if he wants to do that. He can collect Bitcoins, gold bullion, or live chickens as far as I’m concerned, as long as he meets the disclosure requirements. Given that this is Steve Stockman we’re talking about, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in that. But as a matter of philosophy I have no problems with this. As with contributing via text messages, I welcome these innovations as long as proper disclosure is made and all other relevant campaign finance laws are followed. I doubt Bitcoin donations will make any difference to Stockman’s campaign, but hey, a guy can dream if he wants to.