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Joe Driver

Driver’s plea

So long, Joe.

A humbled Rep. Joe Driver, the Garland Republican who illegally pocketed state travel money, pleaded guilty to felony abuse-of-office charges Tuesday and agreed to five years’ probation.

As part of his plea agreement, Driver will get five years deferred adjudication, avoiding jail time as long as he doesn’t violate the terms of his probation. After spending about an hour at the Travis County Courthouse waiting to enter his plea, Driver made a brief statement to reporters.

“Basically, my family and I are thankful that this has been resolved,” Driver said. The longtime lawmaker’s attorney, Dan Guthrie, said Driver may have more to say after his sentencing on Dec. 19.

But don’t worry, he gets to keep his pension. Must be nice. Driver was paired with freshman Rep. Cindy Burkett in a district that now leans Republican. I don’t recall seeing an announcement that he will not be running, but BOR says he did make one. Not that it really matters – I daresay Burkett would have won the nomination regardless. Coby has more.

Driver to take a plea

Whoa.

State Rep. Joe Driver, who candidly acknowledged pocketing taxpayer reimbursements for travel paid by his campaign, will enter a guilty plea on abuse-of-office charges, a third-degree felony, a top prosecutor said Tuesday night.

“He is going to plea to the third degree felony,” said Assistant Travis County District Attorney Gregg Cox, head of the Travis County Public Integrity Unit. “It is a plea of guilt.”

Driver did not return a phone message requesting comment.

Fox 4 News in Dallas first reported the filing of the charges on Tuesday.

Driver recently announced he was leaving the Legislature at the end of his current term. Last year, Driver acknowledged that for years he had been submitting identical receipts, for airfare, fancy hotels and other expenses, to his campaign and to the Texas House of Representatives.

[…]

Cox said Driver had made arrangement to enter a plea on a charge of “abuse of official capacity,” a third-degree felony. The value affixed to the misuse of office was estimated at between $20,000 and $100,000. A third degree felony is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment of between two and ten years.

Cox said Driver would be eligible to serve probation on anywhere between two to ten years. Cox said he was happy with the way the issue had been resolved.

“You’ve got an elected official pleading guilty to a third degree felony,” Cox said. “I think that’s going to be a pretty good outcome.”

For the prosecutors, maybe. For Driver, maybe not so much. Driver had been paired with freshman Rep. Cindy Burkett, so his departure does not open up a seat, though with an interim legislative map on the way, who knows what we’ll wind up with. Either way, good riddance.

Primary news: HD90, HD113, HCDE

State Rep. Lon Burnam has an opponent in March.

Fort Worth School Board trustee Carlos Vasquez has announced he will challenge state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, in next year’s Democratic primary.

Vasquez, a former elementary school principal, has been on the board since 2008 representing the district’s north side.

“After careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that many of the problems faced with public education are attributable to a broken State Government in Austin,” Vasquez wrote on Facebook. “With over four billion dollars cut in public education we need to refocus on what matters most, a strong public school system.

“Today, I am announcing my candidacy for State Representative in District 90 in the Democratic Primary of 2012.”

I think it’s fair to say that Rep. Burnam was not part of the problem that Vasquez identifies, but that’s neither here nor there. HD90 is a heavily Latino district, and Burnam nearly drew a Latino challenger in 2010. It should be noted that the new district in Tarrant County, currently listed as HD101, was drawn with a Latino plurality, but in practice I believe is more likely to elect an African-American. Be that as it may, I like Rep. Burnam and think he plays a very useful role in the Legislature, but as I’ve said before nobody is entitled to a seat. If Vasquez believes he can do a better job protecting the interests of public schools and representing HD90, then let’s hear what he has to say.

Over in Dallas, one of the Republicans that was paired up in the legislative redistricting has announced her intent to run again.

Mesquite Republican Cindy Burkett announced Tuesday that she would seek re-election to the Texas House.

Burkett will run in the newly constituted District 113, where she was paired after redistricting with incumbent lawmaker Joe Driver of Garland.

It’s possible that Driver and Burkett will have meet each other in March for what would be a hotly contested Republican primary race.

Burkett won the former HD101 last year, ousting freshman Rep. Robert Miklos. The new HD113 is quite purple, so with any luck it won’t matter whether Burkett or Driver and his ethical issues emerges from the primary.

Finally, here in Harris County I had recently mentioned the Precinct 1 HCDE Trustee seat, currently held by Roy Morales and referred to by me as the single easiest pickup opportunity for Dems next year. I am pleased to report that via email, TaShon Thomas has informed me that he will make an official announcement of his candidacy for that seat next month. Thomas is a senior Administration of Justice major at TSU and the Chief of Staff in the President’s office of the TSU student government. I met him a year or so ago at a Harris County Young Democrats meeting; he actually qualifies as a Young Dem, I was there as a guest speaker. Here’s his Facebook page if you want to know more about him.

New map, new opportunities: The Metroplex

Dallas and Tarrant Counties will each have eight districts drawn to elect Republicans in them. For this entry, I’m going to look at each of these districts.

Dallas and Tarrant Counties

First up is Tarrant County, which gains a district (HD101) for a total of eleven. HD101 was drawn to elect a Democrat – Barack Obama received 61.59% of the vote, and no Democrat received less than 60%. The interesting question is what kind of Democrat it will elect. According to the district information, HD101 has a voting age population of 29.5% Anglo, 27.0% African-American, 32.5% Hispanic, and 11.6% Other. (Yes, I know that doesn’t add to 100%. I’m just telling you what it says.) VAP is not the same as Citizen Voting Age Population, however, and in general the Hispanic number will drop a lot more for that than other demographic groups. As such, if I were a betting man, I’d wager on African-American. But don’t be surprised if he or she gets a primary challenge from a Hispanic candidate before the decade is over.

So chalk up one sure gain for the Dems. For the eight Republican districts in Tarrant County, here’s the tale of the tape:

Dist Incumbent Elected 08 Dem High Score ============================================ 091 K Hancock 2006 Houston, 35.10 092 T Smith 1996 Houston, 39.76 093 B Nash 2010 Obama, 41.60 094 D Patrick 2006 Houston, 39.63 096 B Zedler 2010 Houston, 42.35 097 M Shelton 2008 Obama, 41.41 098 V Truitt 1998 Obama, 28.12 099 C Geren 2000 Houston, 38.38

None of these stand out as obvious pickup opportunities. Both HDs 93, which had been won by a Democrat in 2006, and 96, won be a Dem in 2008, were made redder to protect their new and recycled incumbents. I suspect that what looks safe now may not be in a couple of cycles. As Tarrant County got less white over the past decade, it also got less red. I don’t think either of those trends are likely to reverse themselves. It’ll be very interesting to see what the landscape looks like for the 2016 election.

Along those lines, I thought it would be worthwhile to compare the new districts to the old ones, to see who got what kind of protection. Here’s a look at the 2004 numbers in the old district for JR Molina, who was generally the high scoring Democrat that year, with the 2008 Sam Houston numbers in the new district:

Dist 04 Molina 08 Houston ============================== 091 34.1 35.1 092 33.2 39.8 093 46.0 41.5 094 34.1 39.6 096 40.0 42.3 097 36.9 41.3 098 36.9 26.7 099 23.9 38.4

I’m not sure what the deal is with the Truitt and Geren districts, but those numbers sure do stand out. Both districts 93 and 96 were made redder, though the latter only in comparison to what it would have been with no changes. Basically, the creation of a 60%+ Dem district in the county gave mapmakers a lot of room to spread the Republican population around enough to make sure no one was in any imminent danger. You can’t fight demography, but you can delay it a bit.

That will become more clear as we look over in Dallas County. First, the numbers for the eight remaining Republican-drawn districts:

Dist Incumbent Elected 08 Dem High Score ============================================ 102 S Carter 2010 Houston, 46.75 105 * L H-Brown 2002 Houston, 48.18 107 K Sheets 2010 Houston, 48.46 108 D Branch 2002 Obama, 44.88 112 A Button 2008 Houston, 45.68 113 * J Driver 1992 Houston, 47.87 114 W Hartnett 1990 Houston, 45.66 115 J Jackson 2004 Houston, 43.24

Driver was paired with freshman Cindy Burkett (HD101), and Harper-Brown with freshman Rodney Anderson (HD106). Here in a county that’s ten to fifteen points bluer to begin with, the most Republican district is bluer than the swingiest district in Tarrant. It ain’t easy making 57% of the legislative seats Republican in a county that’s 57% Democratic. Here the question isn’t if some of these seats will be ripe for the taking but when. Anywhere from two to six seats could be vulnerable right away, and for sure all of them need to be strongly challenged. While we have seen individual districts that are bluer, there’s no one place that has as many opportunities for gain as Dallas.

Here’s the same Molina/Houston comparison for Dallas:

Dist 04 Molina 08 Houston ============================== 102 43.3 46.7 105 42.8 48.2 107 43.0 48.5 108 39.8 42.2 112 36.0 45.7 113 37.4 47.9 114 38.1 45.7 115 32.7 43.2

Every district is bluer than it once was, some by ten points. Some day Dallas County will look like Travis. It’s already most of the way there. Next up, Harris County.

More on the microbrew compromise

Brewed And Never Battered gives its report from the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee hearing yesterday.

Briefly on HB 602: No one expressed opposition, not even the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, who have opposed the bill in the past. There is some forthcoming compromise on that bill that apparently everyone is happy with and it looks like you’ll be able to take beer home after a brewery tour later this year.

HB 660 had a tremendous number of supporters, and the roll of names read into the record as supporters of the bill was long and impressive. Among those in support but not wishing to testify were a number of beer distributors and the Texas Restaurant Association.

As you may have read, we’ve gained the support of the other tiers through thoughtful discussion with interested stakeholders. Beer distributors were concerned about self-distribution for a business type that already sells directly to the consumer, and we understand their points. Self-distribution has been removed from the bill. We also lowered the annual limit for aggregate production to 15,000 barrels per brewpub. A number we are very comfortable with. I’m pleased that we were able to come up with a bill that all three tiers really like.

We did have one person oppose our bill, however. Keith Strama, representing the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, stood up and presented a semi-coherent rambling about how we should allow these kind of changes to the code because… well, just because. Seriously. Strama did present some other barely comprehensible argument, which was called onto the rug in short order by Committee Vice-chair Chente Quintanilla of El Paso. Video of the entire hearing, which you can find here, proves quite entertaining. Strama should have just stuck to “Uh… just because” – turns out that was a better argument than the one he was trying to make.

[…]

What’s Next.

With the WBDT exposed, the ball is back in our court. We have one or two weeks at the most to earn the votes of the committee, after that it will be too late to advance this session. Right now I think we have 4 votes. We need 5. Time to turn up the pressure and continue to urge members of the committee that this the right thing to do. Continue those calls and emails (I’ll post a sample follow up letter tomorrow).

The link to find committee members is here – you can search for the Licensing & Administrative Procedures committee, or just take my word for it that it contains the following members:

Chair: Rep. Mike Hamilton
Vice Chair: Rep. Chente Quintanilla
Members: Rep. Joe Driver, Rep. Charlie Geren, Rep. Roland Gutierrez, Rep. Patricia Harless, Rep. John Kuempel, Rep. Jose Menendez, Rep. Senfronia Thompson

It would be especially helpful for you to express your support for HBs 660 and 602 if one of these folks is your Representative. There clearly is a lot of support for this bill, but until the committee votes it out, that doesn’t mean anything. Lee Nichols has more.

Travis County DA to investigate Double Dip Driver

The Republican wave helped him survive re-election this year, but State Rep. Joe Driver’s troubles aren’t over just yet.

Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit, which oversees official corruption cases, said Tuesday that prosecutors had begun reviewing the travel practices of Rep. Joe Driver before the November elections. Now that the elections are over, that review has turned into an active criminal investigation, Cox said.

“We were presented a complaint that appeared to be sufficient to require additional investigation to determine whether or not the law was violated,” Cox said. “Now that the election has passed, the review, and the investigation, is taking place.”

Driver, a Garland Republican who was re-elected to his 10th two-year term, has acknowledged that for years he collected reimbursements from taxpayers for travel he already had paid for using donated campaign money. He paid for luxury hotels, airline tickets, meals and conference registration fees with campaign funds and then submitted receipts for those same expenses to the state.

Driver said he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong, but he reimbursed his campaign $49,426 after the AP revealed the double dipping.

It’s a pretty high bar to clear to be worthy of an indictment, but if Driver really was dumb enough to think what he was doing wasn’t wrong, the odds are good he did something dumb enough to get nailed for. And he may have company in the dock, thanks to similar transgressions committed by House GOP Caucus Chair Larry Taylor.

Because lawmakers are not required to disclose travel expense reimbursements, Taylor acknowledged his handling of expenses could look bad. He said he always repays his campaign account after the state reimbursement arrives, and he produced bank statements to back up his claim.

An ethics watchdog, however, filed a complaint against Taylor with the Travis County district attorney last week, questioning the lawmaker’s online bank statements.

According to the complaint filed by Dave Palmer, a California-based ethics watchdog, Taylor has used his campaign/officeholder account to pay for $31,952 worth of travel expenses, including 90 airfares, 12 hotel bills, 5 conference registration fees and a car rental – all of which Taylor also billed to the state. The Houston Chronicle independently verified more than 80 of the airfares that showed up on both Taylor’s campaign expense account and in state vouchers for reimbursement since 2005.

Don’t be surprised if there are others like Driver and Taylor out there, too. Greg has more.

They picked a good year to have a scandal

Reps. Joe Driver and Linda Harper Brown made it through the election and now just have to worry about what a prosecutor might think.

The Travis County district attorney’s office is looking into Driver’s travel reimbursements. An official there last week said he couldn’t comment on whether Harper-Brown’s use of a 2010 Mercedes-Benz E550 was being investigated.

Kathy Colvin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Dallas, said she couldn’t comment about whether her office was looking into either Driver’s or Harper-Brown’s actions.

Driver and Harper-Brown did not return phone calls seeking comment last week.

Dallas County Republican Party chairman Jonathan Neerman said it’s too soon to tell whether either of the lawmakers will face future political repercussions.

“The voters had a chance to make a determination, which they did on Tuesday night,” he said. “If there’s still an investigation being conducted by those legal authorities, we need to let those investigations play out.”

[…]

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Driver and Harper-Brown will likely be in the clear if authorities don’t conclude they did anything wrong.

“They have been re-elected to new two-year terms,” Jillson said. “By the time they stand for re-election again, if there have been no further scandals or major issues raised against them, these will fade.”

Very likely true, though unless they actually get a result that casts doubt on the merit of the initial charges I’m sure they will come up again. But unless they get into more trouble, it will be at most background noise, and could even be an asset for them if they wind up in the clear. Timing is everything in this life.

Endorsement watch: No go for Double Dip Joe

The editorial board of the Dallas Morning News has its standards.

State Rep. Joe Driver’s double-dipping on travel reimbursements is such a lapse in ethics and judgment that it’s impossible to recommend him for re-election from Garland-based House District 113.

[…]

His leadership on some issues can’t overcome his ethics deficiencies. He doesn’t recognize that North Texas has an air-quality problem, and he has no viable solutions to highway funding.

By default, our recommendation goes to Democrat Jamie Dorris, 32, a human-resources professional from Sachse. Making her first run, Dorris lacks the preparation we ordinarily expect. Her instincts seem right on environmental and transit issues and the need for bi-partisan solutions. She would have to make good her pledge to work hard and overcome a huge learning curve.

Not the most ringing endorsement for someone you’ll ever see, but quite a clear case against Driver. This is one of the races that Democrats will need to win to have a chance at retaking the State House. See here for more on Driver, and here for more about Jamie Dorris.

Double-Dip Driver

In case you missed this the other day.

State Rep. Joe Driver of Garland, who rails against the evils of runaway government spending, admitted Monday that he has pocketed thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for travel expenses that his campaign had already funded.

The veteran Republican legislator, faced with findings from an investigation by The Associated Press, acknowledged in an interview that for years he has been submitting the same receipts – for luxury hotels, airline tickets, meals, fees and incidentals – to both his campaign and to the Texas House. He has also been collecting thousands of dollars in state mileage reimbursements for travel in vehicles for which his campaign has shelled out more than $100,000 since 2000.

The AP’s review of hundreds of pages of state and campaign travel records found that Driver double-billed for at least $17,431.55 in travel expenses, much of it at upscale out-of-state hotels, since 2005. The number could go higher, but House travel records before mid-2005 have already been destroyed. Driver has been in office for 18 years. The double-billing figure does not include the vehicle expenses.

I am just boggled by this. This is the sort of thing that gets people fired in the real world. If you think real hard, you can probably recall is fairly high-profile recent example of a CEO getting booted for filing bogus expense reports. The two situations aren’t identical, but the principle – Thou Shalt Not Submit Reimbursement Claims For Expenses Thou Did Not (or Should Not) Have Incurred – is the same. This is not rocket science, and Driver’s response to it is just pathetic.

Driver insists he thought the double-billing was perfectly appropriate – until talking about it with the AP.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like it is now. If you bring it up that way,” he said.

[…]

First elected to the House in 1992, he didn’t have “a clue” when he first began claiming reimbursements for travel paid for by his campaign, he said.

“If I knew it was wrong, I wouldn’t have done it that way,” Driver said. “I wouldn’t have done it just to make money.”

I have no idea why he did it, and I have no idea how he could not realize that it was wrong. Interestingly, Driver claims he was told what he was doing was OK by “somebody” at the Texas Ethics Commission, which the TEC denies it ever would have done. I’m inclined to believe them, because again, how could anyone think this was kosher?

For his troubles, Driver has bought himself a criminal investigation and a tougher race. Driver’s district closely mirrored the state in 2008, with McCain defeating Obama 55-44 and Sam Houston getting the high Democratic score with 45.6%. Driver’s opponent is Jamie Dorris, whom I have not met but have heard good things about. I’ll bet a lot more folks will hear about her now.

The Statesman takes an appropriate tone in an editorial about Driver’s behavior. One thing from that story about the DA looking into this needs to be noted:

GOP Rep. Chuck Hopson, chairman of the House General Investigating & Ethics Committee, said he had called [Travis County DA Rosemary] Lehmberg to see whether a criminal investigation is under way while he contemplates his own internal probe of conduct “that doesn’t make the rest of legislators look good.”

Lehmberg said she had spoken to Hopson and said House officials are “probably going to defer to us.”

“We don’t want to run into each other and be gathering documents and looking at documents at the same time,” she said.

You never know what might be found once these rocks start getting turned over. I will be disappointed, but not particularly surprised, if other legislators have made the same error as Driver. One hopes none of them have been anywhere near as egregious about it. BOR and the DMN have more.

Briefly noted

Some interesting things from today that I wanted to note…

There are plenty of people who want to be on the Appropriations Committee, so putting some who doesn’t want to be there, like State Rep. Joe Driver of Dallas, doesn’t make much sense. But once you’re on Appropriations, whether you wanted it or not, you ought to show up to the big budget meetings, what with the budget being such a big deal and all these days.

As you know, TFN will be live-blogging what may be the last clown show of some SBOE members’ careers. I expect the Texas Observer and the Trib to be there as well. If you want some preliminaries, you can attend TFN’s “Don’t White-Out Our History” rally, about which SBOE candidate Judy Jennings has more. You can also read Martha’s explanation of the Board’s agenda for the next few days.

The long-awaited Martinez-Fischer/Riddle debate finally took place. Rep. Martinez-Fischer declares victory and talks a little smack.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos writes another letter about HISD Superintendent Terry Grier.

Finally, a release from the HCDP:

On the recent episode of the PBS local series Red, White and Blue, Republican candidate for Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners was asked if he was concerned about getting the support of the Hispanic community after defeating incumbent Leo Vasquez. His answer concluded with the following – “I don’t have a problem with their (Hispanics) agenda except for trying to get benefits that may not have been earned.”

Below is a statement from State Representative Armando Walle:

“Mr. Sumner’s position that Hispanic families don’t work hard for what they earn is both ignorant and offensive but not the least bit surprising. With their inflammatory rhetoric and political agenda, Texas Republicans have made it clear there is no room for Hispanics in their Party.

Most recently, local Republican state representative Debbie Riddle announced plans to introduce a Texas version of the highly controversial and discriminatory Arizona immigration legislation.  And later this week in Austin, the extremist Republicans who control the State Board of Education will meet to finalize their plans to purge Tejano heroes who died at the Alamo from our children’s social studies books. Latinos have played a major role in shaping Texas’s rich culture and history, but local Republican politicians see our community as a pinata to score points with the far right wing of their party. This assault on our community is disrespectful, intolerant and will not be forgotten when Hispanics head to the polls in November.”

I think that about covers it.