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Hinojosa Admits Errors, Will Change Gears on Mileage Reimbursement

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, acknowledges he made errors in how his campaign reimbursed him for the use of his personal vehicle. He says he plans to now keep a log of his miles.

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State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, says he will change the way he reimburses himself for the use of his personal vehicle after being asked about flat monthly payments he has been getting from his campaign account for years.

Hinojosa was asked this week by The Texas Tribune about the unusual mileage reimbursements. The longtime senator, running for re-election to his South Texas seat, said he has been basing the payments — running $500 a month for the last two years — on a “good-faith estimate” of the actual mileage he drives.

“It always takes a campaign to find out where you’re screwing up or where you need improvement,” Hinojosa said. “I think it would probably be better for me to keep a log and show that in actuality I’m traveling a lot more miles than I’m getting reimbursed for. ... In retrospect I should have done that.” 

Hinojosa emphasized that in his large district he drives more miles for political travel than the amount he has charged to his campaign.

But he plans to now keep a log of his miles and charge his campaign for the actual amount. Ethics rules don’t spell out exactly how mileage must be documented, but the law generally states that campaigns have to keep records to back up expenses they charge. A written log is the most common tool.

Hinojosa said keeping a record of the miles he drives for his campaign is “a pain” — but he acknowledged it’s a better and more accurate way of doing it than just paying himself a flat fee every month. For the last couple of years, he estimates, he drives 1,000 miles a month and has been paying himself 50 cents a mile.

Natalia Ashley, special counsel at the Texas Ethics Commission, said the law requires a "reasonable reimbursement" for the use of a personal asset that is used for political purposes. She also said candidates are required to maintain "back-up documents" about expenditures and to swear that what they are reporting to the commission is truthful.

Ashley spoke generally, without reference to any particular candidate.

Hinojosa faces a spirited challenge from state Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi, who has made the mileage reimbursements an issue in the race. Torres said he suspects Hinojosa has been paying for both mileage and fuel — a double-dipping no-no — but the senator said his opponent is “grasping at straws,” and his campaign opened up several boxes of records to prove it.

Fuel purchase records examined by the Tribune show that staffers, not the senator, were getting reimbursed for fuel they had bought with their own money. 

It’s not the first time Hinojosa has had to change his record-keeping procedures. Before 2005, his campaign reported thousands of dollars in campaign money going directly to the senator with vague explanations like “reimbursement expense” and “travel expense” and “moving expenses.”

The law states that the actual payee — the person or company getting the money — be listed. The requirement is designed to prevent candidates from abusing their campaign funds and illegally converting their use from political to personal.

Hinojosa chalked up the reporting problems to “innocent errors” and said he kept receipts showing where the money actually went.

“I was not the payee,” he said. “I know that’s the way it looks on the campaign report. … I can assure you that we have receipts.”

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2012 elections