Ethics Commission to Candidates: Come Clean

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, passed away on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012.
State Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, passed away on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012.

Numerous elected officials and candidates have reported vague or inaccurate descriptions of their political expenditures in recent years — in some cases making it impossible for the public to track their activities.

The Texas Ethics Commission is moving to fix that.

The commission adopted new rules last week that, beginning this summer, will require anyone running for office to use 19 defined subject categories to describe any goods, services or other things of value purchased by their campaigns.

In the past, these candidates chose vague terms — think "public relations" — that didn't clearly define the purpose of their political expenditures, violating state law and raising concerns about whether the money was converted to their personal use. (Campaign funds are raised from political supporters and interest groups, and don't contain taxpayer money, so the rules about how they can be used are more lenient).

The new campaign spending rules now mean that campaigns will have specific guidance on how to define expenses in the future. For example, the candidates will now have to choose from descriptions such as "advertising expense," "polling expense", and "event expense," among many others. In addition, the commission is requiring that candidates provide "sufficiently specific" descriptions of expenditures after the categories — a further increase in disclosure.

Reform advocates praised the changes. The rules should make it easier for the public to calculate candidates' spending priorities — and make it more difficult for candidates to mask the spending of political funds, as some watchdogs have complained.

"These are foundational for real transparency and we're absolutely elated that these rules will be put in place," said Andy Wilson with Public Citizen Texas.

Fred Lewis, an Austin lawyer who has advocated for stronger ethics standards, said the public will be able to see that some elected officials spend much of their campaign funds for office and lifestyle expenses — rather than for campaign expenses.

"It will reveal more clearly what I believe the ugly reality is: Most Texas legislative officeholders do not have competitive races, they raise lots of donations anyway, that these funds come mainly from lobbyists and special interests, and the funds go to underwrite in a major way legislators' lifestyles — food, entertainment, club dues, gifts, cars, etc.," he said. 

Incidents of inadequate spending descriptions have been common over the years, though precise figures for the number of violations are difficult to calculate.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, is a well-chronicled example. In 2006, someone complained to the commission that Gallegos improperly documented more than $100,000 in campaign payments, including at least $32,000 in reimbursements to himself. The campaign reports listed "contract services" as the description at least 61 times over two years. They also listed "services and expenses", "services and reimbursement" or "services" another 13 times.

The commission ultimately found that Gallegos had, in fact, violated state law and campaign-finance rules, though Gallegos admitted no wrongdoing and amended his reports. Still, he paid a $8,600 fine — among the highest penalties in the commission's history. His office said the senator wasn't available for comment about the issue.

Gallegos, of course, isn't alone. The commission has issued other large fines in recent years for expenditure description problems against other candidates — part of an overall trend of tougher enforcement for campaign-finance violations.

The process for changing the rules began in June, when commissioners told the agency's staff to draft them. The directive came after a discussion about the increasing number of complaints alleging that candidates and elected officials were spending campaign money on personal expenses. 

For example, an expense reported simply as "meal" could be considered illegal without context. In general, candidates can't purchase personal meals from campaign accounts, but they can pay for a campaign strategy luncheon or events with constituents. 

In August, commission Chairman Ross Fischer formed a subcommittee to continue working with staff on the rules, which were drafted with consideration of what the Federal Election Commission requires.

In addition to the spending rule change, the commission also adopted stepped-up rules for reporting of politically funded trips outside Texas. The new rules require candidates to disclose the names of the people traveling, the means of transportation, departure and destination city, date and the purpose of the trip.

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