A top aide to state Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, is under criminal investigation for alleged improprieties related to travel reimbursements he received from the state, officials said Friday.
Travis County Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox, who oversees felony prosecutions of public officials, confirmed that his office is investigating a complaint against Kleinschmidt’s chief of staff, John Higgins.
Higgins denied any wrongdoing and distanced himself from the documents at question, saying that former employees signed his name to the travel documents.
Cox said Kleinschmidt and his office staff are cooperating with prosecutors in the probe of Higgins. He said there are no allegations against Kleinschmidt or anyone else working for him. The travel reimbursements in question went directly to Higgins.
“We have received a case referral from the state auditor’s office regarding that individual,” Cox said, referring to Higgins. “I can just confirm that the state auditor’s office did bring us a case referral regarding an individual and some irregularities with his travel reimbursement forms.”
Cox, head of the Travis County DA's Public Integrity Unit, confirmed it was a felony investigation but couldn't specifiy what law may have been broken or when the complaint was received. He said the probe was in the initial stage.
Kleinschmidt, in a telephone interview, said he had full confidence in Higgins and predicted that he would be cleared of any wrongdoing once prosecutors were able to review all the records. The Republican representative, first elected in 2008, said travel reimbursements might seem unusually high because he does not have an office inside his district, located just east of Austin in the Bastrop area.
"John does a huge amount of travel in the district because we don’t use a district office," Kleinschmidt said. "So much of our district is located within an hour’s drive. That increases the travel.” He said all the travel reimbursements are recorded and are "very transparent."
Kleinschmidt said his office was first contacted by the state auditor's office about the alleged reimbursement improprieties several weeks ago. Higgins is still performing his duties as chief of staff.
"I think John will be vindicated once they investigate it," Kleinschmidt said. "I have full confidence in John."
Higgins said he had violated no laws and had already met with the state auditor's office to explain any discrepancies. Out of a huge stack of travel vouchers he said auditors found just two questionable trips worth about $400 combined, and he offered to reimburse the state for them.
Higgins estimated that he averaged between $600 to $800 in travel expenses a month as part of a mobile office arrangement, which he said was blessed in 2009 by the House Administration Committee. Higgins said the idea for a mobile office was inspired by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, who introduced the concept in his sprawling Congressional district years ago.
“I'm out doing my job. We do not have a district office. We have a mobile office," Higgins said. "We got permission from the state before we ever started doing it.”
Higgins said that during his first three years as chief of staff, former Kleinschmidt staffers filled out his travel vouchers for him and signed his name to the forms without his permission. He described those former employees as "disgruntled." He said he would then receive reimbursement checks from the state and deposit them into his personal account. Even though someone else signed the paperwork, Higgins said he believes the reimbursements accurately reflect the amount he was owed.
Higgins said he discovered early this year that he should be filling out and signing travel vouchers and has since kept detailed travel records and adhered to all the guidelines and procedures.
He said he has not spoken yet to anyone at the Travis County DA's office, but Higgins was more than happy to tell his side of the story. He said he has not hired a defense attorney and doesn't feel like he can afford one on a state salary of $6,000 a month before taxes.
"I've got nothing to hide," he said. "I think this whole thing is an ambush and it doesn't have any legs."
The Public Integrity Unit successfully prosecuted former state Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, over improper travel reimbursements last year. Driver candidly acknowledged pocketing taxpayer reimbursements for travel paid by his campaign and entered a guilty plea on abuse-of-office charges, a third-degree felony.