In politics, one man’s mistake is another’s opportunity. Now that state Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, has been sentenced for “double dipping” — billing both his campaign and the state Legislature for the same expenses — opposition researchers in this primary season are scrambling for other examples.
But where there's smoke, it's often hard to prove there's fire, because of a lax state ethics code that allows lawmakers to use their campaign accounts for legislative expenses. The loophole, which lawmakers partially tightened last session, means there is little transparency about which pot of money lawmakers have used or whether they have double billed. It makes candidates vulnerable to attacks, and the accusations of double dipping tough to prove, unless, as in Driver’s case, the lawmaker admits to it.
Too many of Texas’ disclosure rules “serve the interests of elected officials over the public’s right to know,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a fiscal watchdog group. “The Legislature has never been keenly interested in full transparency when it comes to their personal and campaign finances.”
Take state Rep. Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton. Over the last three sessions, legislative travel vouchers show the Mauriceville Republican charged the state more than $16,000 for mileage — the equivalent of 60 trips between Austin and his East Texas district. He also used his campaign credit card to buy $5,400 in fuel on trips between those two cities. And at least once, he billed both his campaign and the Legislature for the same conference registration.
State Rep. Wayne Christian’s expense reports include similar duplications. In the last few sessions, Christian, R-Center, charged the state more than $16,000 for mileage between Austin and his district, while using $7,000 from his campaign to buy fuel at gas stations between Center and Austin. He reported at least $2,500 in expenses that appear to have been billed both to his campaign and to the Legislature, including airline tickets and conference stays.
Opposition researchers and campaign finance watchdogs say the lawmakers’ charges look like double dipping. The Legislature’s mileage reimbursement is intended to cover gasoline, and duplicate charges should not show up on legislative and campaign expense reports. Yet Hamilton, Christian and other lawmakers with similarly filed reports said they did something routine and perfectly legal: reimbursed their campaigns for legislative expenditures.
By rule, lawmakers who use campaign money to pay for legislative expenses must reimburse their campaigns. But the state often has no clear record of these reimbursements because the Texas ethics code does not require lawmakers to report them — it is voluntary — or to itemize the reimbursements.
Christian said it is sometimes easier to use his campaign credit card while traveling; the line between legislative and campaign expenses can be blurry. But he says his staff reviews his expenses and reimburses his campaign when they see he has also charged the state — sometimes writing checks for as much as $4,000.
Craig Murphy — a campaign consultant who counts Hamilton as a client, worked for Driver when he came under scrutiny and is now helping Christian’s primary opponent — said the problem is not just the reporting requirements. It is that lawmakers, many of whom are not independently wealthy, are permitted to use campaign credit cards for legislative expenses because the state cannot reimburse them fast enough.
“I think the scandals in Washington have shown us that where there is no clear line and transparency, someone eventually will get burned,” Murphy said.
An ethics measure tacked on to a budget bill during June’s special legislative session now requires lawmakers to submit a special form if they use campaign money to pay for legislative expenses and then reimburse their campaigns. But for candidates who are hunting for dirt on each other now, the reports — and the expenditures — remain vague.
Christian said the problem is rooted not in ethics law but in the Republican primary campaign strategy. He said candidates are trying to “cannibalize” their opponents by hiring opposition researchers to make mountains out of campaign finance molehills.
“I’ll probably get sent to San Quentin for not doing it in exactly the perfect way,” he said of his finance reports. “It makes me ill. It’s a sad day when you can’t just run on your campaign credentials.”