This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
Many Texas lawmakers are quick to name the sacrifices they make to serve: the meager state pay, the grueling hours, the time spent away from their families and their day jobs.
But in reality, life in the Legislature is not half bad. The perks associated with the job — exotic trips, hotel upgrades and campaign cash spent on luxury gifts — can dramatically augment lawmakers’ lifestyles.
Take state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, a 16-year veteran of the upper chamber who previously served in the House. In the last three years, Fraser, the Senate Natural Resources Committee chairman, spent more than $300,000 from his campaign account maintaining his personal airplane, at least $33,000 on country club fees and dues and more than $4,000 on suits, on top of thousands of dollars on upscale hotels for conferences and events everywhere from Hawaii to Buenos Aires, according to his campaign finance reports.
Between 2008 and 2010, he claimed more travel per diems — 361, valued at more than $58,000 — than any other member of the Senate.
And in the last several years, taxpayers paid for him to attend at least nine policy conferences in destinations like Puerto Rico and Santa Fe, N.M. In some instances, Fraser flew his own plane, receiving mileage reimbursements at up to triple the price of a commercial ticket.
Fraser said all his campaign expenses and Senate reimbursements are related to his role as a legislator and, in particular, his expanded duties as the chairman of a major committee.
The airplane costs, which he said he incurs flying across the state for official business, “do not cover 100 percent” of his bill. He justified the country club membership by saying he makes it “available to all members of the Legislature and all lobbyists” for a “standard once-a-week outing” that sometimes includes constituents. And the clothing he purchased was purely for use during the legislative session, he said, adding that he rarely wears suits unless he's in the Capitol. In 2011, he reimbursed his campaign for the suits after an ethics watchdog filed a complaint against him. Fraser said he still disagrees with the decision.
Fraser said that in recent years he had moved away from requesting state reimbursement for out-of-state travel, choosing to finance it through his campaign instead. He said the per diems are a reflection of his retirement from the private sector; unlike many of his colleagues, the well-to-do lawmaker said, the Legislature is now his day job.
“I’m one of the few who almost overreports,” Fraser said, adding that every state expense is approved by the Senate and every campaign expenditure meticulously disclosed. “My constituents and my supporters understand very clearly what I’m doing with money.”
Fraser is far from the only lawmaker to reap such on-the-job benefits. His colleagues use campaign cash to drive Mercedes and BMWs, and trade thousand-dollar gifts from Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co., Montblanc and Four Seasons spas. Some of them rent high-dollar condos in Austin — decorated with furniture from Williams-Sonoma and Crate & Barrel — and buy tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of sports tickets. And they take taxpayer-funded trips to conferences in far-flung destinations like Vancouver, Cuba and Alaska.
Critics say such spending — which is allowed under the state’s ethics and campaign finance rules as long as it's directly tied to state or legislative business — blurs the line between what's permissible and what's ethical. At best, they argue, it rips off wealthy campaign donors; at worst, hard-working Texas taxpayers.
“They have the audacity to act as though they’re underpaid,” said Dave Palmer, a California-based campaign finance watchdog who filed so many complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission — on legislators using their campaign cash for everything from personal fitness equipment to dry cleaning — that lawmakers passed legislation limiting such complaints to Texans. “They’re enriching themselves by having their living expenses paid for ad infinitum.”
Rita Kirk, director of Southern Methodist University’s Maguire Ethics Center, said the root of this behavior is Texas’ part-time Legislature, where “the only people who really can get there are people who are wealthy enough to self-finance or have wealthy people invest in them.” She said it establishes an “elitist government style” where proper stewardship of taxpayer or donor dollars can at times be compromised.
“If you’re getting a special privilege because you hold the public trust,” she said, “my argument would be you should think clearly about whether or not to accept it.”
Lawmakers justify charging the state or their campaign contributors for conferences in exotic locales if it qualifies as official business — they're out, they say, doing the state’s bidding.
Between 2007 and 2011, legislative travel records show, former state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, charged the state for 17 conference trips, more than any of his Senate colleagues — including one to El Conquistador, a resort in Puerto Rico. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, had at least nine, records show, including one stay at the Golden Nugget hotel and casino in Las Vegas. And former state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, billed the state nearly $4,000 for an energy meeting in Saskatoon, Canada, and more than $2,700 for a meeting at the historic Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs.
The airfare can be eye-popping, and even taxpayer-financed flights to common destinations like Washington, D.C., or Chicago often exceed $700. Some lawmakers fly their own planes to domestic conferences or meetings across Texas, enjoying a mileage reimbursement rate that is more than twice the price of driving, and almost always exceeds commercial rates.
Some of these conference trips turn into de facto vacations, with lawmakers paying out of their own pockets to tack on extra days, bring along their families and enjoy spa treatments, rounds of golf, bars and casinos.
State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1990, said that as a “matter of personal policy,” he has never attended conferences on legislative business, largely because he thinks taxpayers should not be footing the bill. Nor does Carona, a wealthy businessman who travels frequently for work, generally accept travel per diems when the Legislature is not in session, to “avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
But he has sought thousands of dollars’ worth of mileage reimbursements from the state and fuel and maintenance expenses from his campaign for traveling on his company plane, which he says he does for convenience and efficiency. He has also used his campaign account to purchase upscale gifts for his colleagues from the luxury retailers Bachendorf’s and Salvatore Ferragamo, and to buy a longtime employee a $6,000 retirement present from Eiseman Jewels.
Such gifts are common; lawmakers routinely give each other presents to celebrate a new baby or the wedding of a colleague’s child, congratulate a legislator for carrying a hefty bill or honor them for chairing a key committee.
In 2009, state Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, and other members of the Senate State Affairs Committee bought Chairman Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, a $1,380 guitar. Several years earlier, then-Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, helped purchase a $2,500 gift certificate from a Chicago clothier for Ellis.
The most notorious of such gifts dates back to the 1990s, when Kevin Bailey, then a Democratic representative from Houston, was arrested and accused of threatening his girlfriend with a gun. He was cleared of any charges, but the gun, a .22-caliber Derringer, lived on in infamy: it had been given to him by the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee as a thank you for Bailey’s help passing the state’s concealed handgun law.
Carona said legislators have “no business” complaining about their state stipends or working conditions.
“Each and every one of us made the choice to run for the office, and few are eager to give up the post,” he said. “The compensation and perks are more than sufficient for most citizen legislators here in Texas.”
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.