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Charitable Donations, With Political Benefits

Charity fundraisers give lobbyists and political donors a way to show their support to officeholders during legislative sessions — when the law prohibits direct contributions.

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Bidness as Usual

This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

It is legal during legislative sessions for state officeholders to raise money for their favorite charities from the same people who are prohibited from donating to their political campaigns in that same time period.

The charities are perfectly worthwhile — causes that range from heartwarming to life-changing. And prominent people lend their names to such causes all the time. There is, of course, nothing wrong with raising money for the charities, and no campaign laws are being broken.

But the juxtaposition is thorny.

During a legislative session, state officeholders are prohibited from raising money for their state political accounts — unless they are involved in an election.

The reasoning is simple. The authors of that particular law wanted to separate the donations of political supplicants from the deeds of political actors. They wanted to protect everybody involved in these transactions from even the appearance that money from contributors was connected to actions by lawmakers.

There were famous cases, like when the chicken magnate Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim passed out campaign donations on the Texas Senate floor during a break in the debate on workers’ compensation laws, which were of interest to his business.

That was legal when he did it in 1989, but not anymore.

The campaign laws include an intentional loophole for lawmakers like Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, who was recently in a special election for an open Senate seat. Like the other candidates in that race, she was allowed to raise money for the campaign in spite of the Legislature’s calendar.

The candidates in the Senate District 6 race are not the only people dialing for dollars while lawmakers are in town. Monday is Gov. Rick Perry’s birthday, which will be marked by a dinner at the Governor’s Mansion benefiting Carry the Load, a group formed to honor military veterans. Suggested donations go as high as $100,000, which would get the donor “VIP seating” for eight and “priority seating” for another eight guests at the governor’s birthday dinner, along with a private tour of the restored mansion.

Last month, the Texas Senate Hispanic Research Council held a gala for the Luna scholars program, which gives students civic experience by allowing them to work as legislative staff members during the session. Diamond sponsorships for the gala at the downtown Austin Hilton went for $20,000 and individual tickets were $1,000; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gave the keynote address.

A similar group, the Texas Legislative Internship Program, has a fundraising gala in April at Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel, with the top sponsors donating $25,000. That one is affiliated with Texas Southern University, and the attraction is a roast of Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

The legislative luncheon for the Governor’s Commission for Women — the first lady of Texas, Anita Perry, is the headliner — is on the March calendar. The top-level sponsorship to that one is $10,000, with the money going to the commission’s work.

Worthy causes, across the board. It is hard to fault the officeholders for using their prominence to raise money for such programs, the donors for contributing or the charities for accepting the money.

It is not as hard to wince at the timing of the events.

Ethics laws and practices have a lot to do with intent and with appearances. Leave intent to the lawyers, but appearances belong to politics.

The political fundraising prohibition is aimed at the appearance that lawmakers are taking money from donors while casting votes that benefit those donors.

So if donors cannot show their love for officeholders by giving money directly, indirect giving becomes the next best thing. A donor at a charity event sponsored by a politician for purely charitable purposes appears to be doing the same thing as a donor who is there purely to curry favor with the politician at the head table.

An officeholder raising money for a good cause looks the same as a lawmaker using a powerful position to make donors do something they might not otherwise do. So long as they are willing to believe in the pure motives of everyone involved, voters needn’t worry about influence peddling.

But it is awkward. As House Speaker Joe Straus said last week at a charitable dinner honoring him and benefiting the Annette Strauss Institute: “People say the nicest things about you when the budget’s being written.”

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