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Ethics charges fly as Hurd-Gallego rematch comes down to wire

In the state's only competitive congressional race, incumbent U.S. Rep. Will Hurd and challenger Pete Gallego are pulling no punches in the final days of the campaign.

Democrat Pete Gallego is challenging U.S. Rep. Will Hurd for the sprawling CD-23 seat. Hurd won the swing seat from Gallego two years ago; no incumbent has won a second term in eight years.

Allegations of unethical behavior are reaching a new volume in the home stretch of Texas' only competitive congressional race, a heated rematch between U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, and Alpine Democrat Pete Gallego.

With four days to go, the campaigns escalated long-simmering charges of impropriety, most notably over Gallego's work after leaving Congress and the Hurd campaign's TV ads. Early voting ended Friday in the race for the 23rd district, a sprawling area that runs roughly from El Paso to San Antonio and along hundreds of miles of Mexican border.

On Friday, Texas Republicans filed a complaint against Gallego with the Texas Ethics Commission, formalizing their long-held accusation that he worked as a lobbyist after losing re-election in 2012 — and should have registered with the state. Gallego has repeatedly denied the charge, which PolitiFact Texas rated false when it was made about work he did for the City of Austin. The GOP complaint targets his employment by another city, Del Rio. 

Gallego's side countered with its own charge that Hurd is breaking House ethics rules by airing another commercial featuring footage from a congressional committee hearing. Team Hurd was unapologetic, saying it is "airing an ad showing Will Hurd doing what he was elected to do." 

Back in Austin, Republicans tied Gallego to his party's presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, as they sought to breathe new life into the lobbyist allegation. So far, more attention in the race has been paid to GOP nominee Donald Trump, whom Hurd never endorsed but only recently fully disavowed. 

"There needs to be some transparency here," state GOP chairman Tom Mechler told reporters after filing the TEC complaint against Gallego. "Hillary Clinton and him — we have two great examples here of how the Democrats refuse to follow the rule of law in America."

The TEC complaint centers on a "professional services agreement" Gallego's law firm had with the City of Del Rio during the 2015 legislative session. The agreement describes the "scope of work" as providing legal assistance to draft and review legislation as well as correspondence with state and federal agencies. The complaint alleges Gallego made enough off the agreement — at least $1,000 — to meet the requirement to file with ethics commission as a lobbyist.

The TEC complaint was filed four days before the election — a practice ethics commissioners have discouraged due to the appearance of political meddling. Asked Friday about the timing of the complaint, Mechler told reporters he was lodging it out now because the party had just obtained the "particular paperwork" it needed on which to base the allegation. 

In response, Gallego's campaign issued a lengthy statement that began "If you read the contract, it specifically says Pete was hired as an attorney, not a lobbyist." 

In the rest of the statement — and in a news release earlier Friday — Gallego's campaign drew attention to four complaints that have been filed alleging unethical behavior on Hurd's part. The complaints, lodged with the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Federal Election Commission, partly deal with the appearance of a congressional committee hearing in Hurd campaign ads. 

The hearing in question is from earlier this year when he aggressively questioned FBI Director James Comey over his investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state. The hearing is a point of pride for Hurd's campaign, especially after Comey's announcement last week that the FBI was again looking into newly surfaced emails potentially related to the Clinton probe. 

In the latest Hurd spot targeted by Gallego's campaign, the Comey hearing is shown as Hurd says, "In Congress, I've witnessed dysfunction and felt your frustration." House rules say footage of such proceedings "may not be used ... as partisan political campaign material to promote or oppose the candidacy of any person for public office."

"Congressman Hurd apparently believes that his status as a congressman makes him special — that the rules everyone else has to follow don't apply to him," Gallego spokeswoman Lyndsey Rodriguez said in the statement. "On more than one occasion, Congressman Hurd has said that this race is about him and that he has to do what it takes to take care of himself. If rules don't serve his interests, he breaks them."

Hurd's campaign was unrepentant in response.

"Pete Gallego is a do-nothing, dishonest, career politician," Hurd campaign manager Justin Hollis said. "We are airing an ad showing Will Hurd doing what he was elected to do. I understand that could be confusing to Re-Pete since he accomplished absolutely nothing on the public dime for over two decades."

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