More than two years after being accused by a political foe of violating state campaign finance laws — including a charge that he improperly paid himself interest on a campaign loan — Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller says he believes the complaints dating to his days as a state legislator are languishing and will amount to nothing.
Miller told the Tribune this week that he recently met with Texas Ethics Commission lawyers and is confident his reports were "filed correctly."
Since taking the helm of the state's agriculture agency, Miller has drawn new scrutiny for a trip to Oklahoma for pain treatment known as a "Jesus shot", and a rodeo trip to Mississippi. The Texas Rangers are investigating both of those out-of-state trips.
But before that, the former state representative from Stephenville faced complaints that he had used his campaign funds for personal gain. More than two years after the first complaint was lodged, however, there's been little more than silence.
The Texas Ethics Commission is considering three complaints, but declined to say where the cases stand citing its policy of not commenting on pending complaints.
A fourth complaint accusing Miller of filing false documents made to the Travis County District Attorney's office was quietly closed in 2014 after prosecutors there found "insufficient evidence" to proceed.
"We closed our review of the allegations to the false filing of a campaign report," said Gregg Cox, director of special prosecutions at the Travis County DA's office.
All four of the complaints came from Mark McCaig, a Katy attorney who in 2014 worked as a volunteer for Miller's rival for the GOP nomination for the agriculture commissioner's post, Tommy Merritt. McCaig has insisted no one "put him up" to filing the complaints.
"I did all of this on my own," McCaig said.
In 2013, McCaig filed the first complaint to the ethics commission over a $10,000 personal loan Miller made to his state lawmaker campaign in 2000. When Miller repaid himself with campaign funds in 2012, he received more than $31,000 after adding compounded 10 percent interest. State law allows candidates to loan their campaigns money and be paid back with "reasonable" interest.
"If they take their personal funds and move it to their campaign account they have to report that as a loan," said Ian Steusloff, the ethics commission's general counsel.
Buck Wood, an attorney specializing in campaign finance, said 10 percent may be seem a high rate in these days of low interest, but said a definition of reasonableness also has to reflect the type of endeavor being financed: a political campaign.
"That's an awfully risky loan," Wood explained. "You say 1o percent is unreasonable, but I can tell you it's a loan with no collateral. The campaign may run out of money. It's not like he loaned money and there was collateral out there."
If a candidate or officeholder wants to loan themselves campaign funds, Wood noted, they can't just dump cash into an account. They're supposed to execute legal loan documents spelling out the terms of the loan including the interest rate, Wood said.
"Without some formal document that evidences the loan and the terms of the loan, it's a contribution," Wood said.
While he doesn't recall the ethics commission levying any fines in the past for candidates violating the lending rules, Wood said officeholders have been forced to repay their campaign because they could not prove the money they withdrew from their campaign was a loan repayment.
McCaig filed two more complaints with the ethics commission accusing Miller of improper accounting because his campaign finance statements do not add up correctly. According to McCaig's calculations, Miller's accounting was off by as much as $84,000 in 2012 and $205,000 in 2014. The commission has not taken action on those complaints either.
McCaig's fourth complaint against Miller, the one already closed by the Travis County DA's office, claimed Miller filed false documents about stock trades he made with campaign funds.
There is nothing illegal about taking campaign funds and investing them, according to Wood. While the campaign finance law in Texas does not specifically address stock trades, it does not prohibit them. However, any proceeds made from stock trades have to go back to the campaign and cannot be tapped for personal use.
McCaig's complaint accused Miller of underreporting the trade sales prices for four different stocks on two different dates in 2012.
The Texas Tribune first contacted Miller about the complaints last month, and Miller said this past week that he met with the ethics commission lawyers shortly thereafter.
"They seemed satisfied with the loan repayment and the stocks," Miller told the Tribune.
Steusloff, the ethics commission lawyer, declined to confirm or deny that a meeting took place.
"There is a confidentiality statute that states anything related to a sworn complaint is confidential and the commission cannot even confirm that a complaint has been filed," he said.