Texas lawmaker didn't file a campaign finance report for two years. Why didn't the state make him?
State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, went almost two years without filing any campaign or personal financial reports, racking up more than $50,000 in fines. He still hasn't paid anything and it's unclear whether any state agency has the power to make him.
*Editor’s Note: This story has been updated throughout after state Rep. Ron Reynolds contacted a reporter soon after publication to say that he had filed a campaign finance report on Monday. It also now includes comment from Reynolds.
For two years, it was unclear where one Texas lawmaker was getting his money and how he was spending it. That’s because state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, had failed to file multiple mandatory campaign and personal financial reports, racking up more than $50,000 in fines.
On Monday, Reynolds broke that streak, filing his first two campaign finance reports since February 2016.
Still, the penalties imposed by the Texas Ethics Commission have been growing. And despite referrals to the Texas Attorney General and several court rulings ordering payment, Reynolds still hasn’t paid up. Nearly two years and nine deadlines passed with no new filings, creating a situation that highlights the long-standing question of how much enforcement power the state has over lawmakers’ political dealings.
“The ethics commission is dependent on the AG and other officials to prosecute civilly or criminally in the courts,” said Fred Lewis, an Austin attorney with expertise in campaign finance law. “So the question is what other additional steps can they take?”
Reynolds did not return multiple requests for comment prior to this story. But soon after the story published early Tuesday morning, he texted a Texas Tribune reporter to say he had filed two reports on Monday. One was a report due Monday, 30 days before the March primary election. The other was a regular January report, which came in 20 days after the deadline. Neither report has been posted on the Texas Ethics Commission website, making it unclear how much information is provided.
Prior to then, he had not filed a campaign finance report since February 2016, resulting in $52,000 in fines, according to the Texas Ethics Commission, the regulatory agency in charge of political activities of state lawmakers and candidates. Reynolds still hasn't filed an annually-mandated report outlining his personal finances since 2015, tacking on another $1,500 penalty.
A Texas Ethics Commission representative confirmed that the reports due last month and Monday were both filed in the afternoon, though online records did yet not reflect the filings.
“I've been focused on serving the needs of my constituents during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and focused on assisting those in need with food, housing, etc.,” Reynolds said. “This is old news!”
When a campaign finance report is late, the commission is able to impose civil penalties, and it first sends three late notices to the filer over the span of about two months. After that, it can refer collections to the attorney general’s office, according to Ian Steusloff, general counsel for the commission.
The commission can also decide to refer the case to local prosecutors for criminal misdemeanor charges, Steusloff said. He was unaware whether Reynolds’ case had been referred for criminal prosecution, and online county records did not indicate any such charges had been filed.
In a December interview with The Texas Tribune, Reynolds blamed his former treasurer for misplacing records needed to file the missing reports and said his accountant was trying to reconcile that. He hoped to have everything “done and filed” by the end of 2017. He’s missed at least one more state-mandated deadline since then.
Last week, he attended a fundraiser for his campaign put on by a Fort Bend County commissioner, according to his Facebook page.
A spokeswoman with the attorney general’s office confirmed last month it had received a number of referrals for Reynolds’ missing filings over the last decade, and that the office has acted on all of them. The state has repeatedly taken Reynolds to civil court, and Travis County district judges have handed down five orders since 2009 for the state to collect the fines (plus interest and attorney fees). Four of those served as permanent injunctions for Reynolds to also file the missing reports within 30 days.
Still, nothing was paid, and many reports were not filed for more than a year.
The attorney general’s office initially told the Tribune that it had garnished Reynolds’ bank account as part of its actions against his delinquent filing, but in response to questions about which judgments resulted in actual payment, spokeswoman Kayleigh Lovvorn clarified that the garnishment of Reynolds’ bank account “did not yield any funds and he has filed for bankruptcy.”
The missing reports by Reynolds were complicated by his other legal woes. Reynolds, who has served in the state Legislature since 2011, is currently appealing a 2015 misdemeanor conviction and one-year jail sentence for illegally soliciting clients for his personal injury law practice. Shortly afterward, his law license was suspended, and in 2016, he filed for bankruptcy.
He owed creditors, including the ethics commission and former legal clients who had sued Reynolds, more than $1.3 million. But he was never legally declared bankrupt. Two days after a September 2016 meeting with his creditors in which Reynolds was asked to provide additional information, he filed a motion to dismiss his case, which was granted in early 2017. That means all of his past debts were still in place and those who were owed money were able to seek funds again.
Yet more than a year later, the attorney general’s office still pointed to Reynolds' original bankruptcy filing when asked about any penalties collected. When the Tribune mentioned that the bankruptcy was dismissed and asked whether the state was still pursuing the case, Lovvorn said the office cannot comment on plans for future litigation or collection.
Lewis emphasized that he was unfamiliar with Reynolds’ case specifically, but said with an injunction in place requiring filings and payment of penalties, a judge could hold a delinquent in contempt of court.
“Then you can go to jail, and that does have a way of concentrating the mind,” he said.
Lewis suggested that the Texas Legislature consider increasing the penalty for delinquency so that repeated failure to comply with disclosure laws would become a more serious misdemeanor that includes jail time.
Wilvin Carter, who is running against Reynolds in the Democratic primary for House District 27 southwest of Houston, said he doesn’t think a lawmaker's failure to report campaign finances or personal finances should be criminal, but Reynolds should be held accountable for his actions.
“The voters that we’re talking to ... they now feel like they’ve been taken advantage of,” he said. “They no longer have trust when it comes to Mr. Reynolds and what he says.”
Reynolds has won past elections despite his criminal conviction and refusal to file campaign finance reports, though. Carter is hoping that the current political environment will yield a different outcome in the safely-Democratic district.
“Reynolds repeated disregard for campaign finance filings is no different from President Donald Trump refusing to release his taxes,” he said in a news release last month. “Just like Trump, what is Reynolds hiding?”
On Monday, another campaign finance report was due for Reynolds and the other 149 members of the Texas House. The ethic commission’s website still showed Reynolds’ last report was filed on Feb. 22, 2016.
Reynolds said in a text Tuesday morning that he is running for re-election based on his record of accomplishment and to move his district forward.
“My opponent can continue to run his smear campaign against me while I stay focused on fighting for my constituents,” he said.
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