|► Houston Chronicle – 11/26/10 - Ethics one of Straus’ priorities|
Houston Chronicle – 11/26/10 - Ethics one of Straus’ priorities
Ethics one of Straus' priorities
Regaining the public's trust is key, House speaker says
By GARY SCHARRER, AUSTIN BUREAU
AUSTIN — Amid recent admissions from one lawmaker that he double-billed travel expenses and questions surrounding the handling of expense money by another, the Legislature must address ethics reform when it convenes in January, House Speaker Joe Straus said.
A better system must be in place, "to make sure that legislators are not being reimbursed by both the state and their campaigns," Straus, R-San Antonio, said in reference to records that show House Republican Caucus leader Larry Taylor routinely pays for travel expenses from his campaign account and then seeks reimbursement from the state.
Taylor, of Friendswood, said he repays his campaign account after receiving a check from the state.
Questions about Taylor's reimbursements come on the heels of revelations that Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, double-billed at least $17,431 in travel expenses. Driver said the double reimbursements were unintentional errors.
Still, Straus said, ethics, trust and public confidence are paramount in democracy.
"The public trust is No. 1," he said, "and without that, we couldn't even begin to address these other challenges that we have."
Because lawmakers are not required to disclose travel expense reimbursements, Taylor acknowledged his handling of expenses could look bad. He said he always repays his campaign account after the state reimbursement arrives, and he produced bank statements to back up his claim.
An ethics watchdog, however, filed a complaint against Taylor with the Travis County district attorney last week, questioning the lawmaker's online bank statements.
According to the complaint filed by Dave Palmer, a California-based ethics watchdog, Taylor has used his campaign/officeholder account to pay for $31,952 worth of travel expenses, including 90 airfares, 12 hotel bills, 5 conference registration fees and a car rental - all of which Taylor also billed to the state. The Houston Chronicle independently verified more than 80 of the airfares that showed up on both Taylor's campaign expense account and in state vouchers for reimbursement since 2005.
It is not possible to verify whether Taylor repaid his campaign account because lawmakers are not required to disclose repayments from state travel reimbursements back to their campaign or officeholder accounts.
Taylor acknowledged the loophole could invite dishonest politicians to pocket the state reimbursements.
"I'd say 90-95 percent of the people here aren't going to be doing that. There are a few bad apples in every bunch," he said. "It will catch up with you at some point."
There is no uniform reporting system for the handling of legislative-related travel, Taylor said.
"If I'm a wealthy person, I just would pay for (the travel expenses) out of my personal account and then, when I get the reimbursement, I would put it right back into my personal account because it's all mine. I just don't have that kind of cash," said Taylor, who owns an insurance agency.
Travel reimbursement checks from the state are electronically deposited into a separate "clearing account" Taylor set up at Wells Fargo, where he also has his personal banking and campaign-office holder accounts.
Taylor shared a sample bank statement with the Chronicle: the December 2007 statement shows he transferred $17,509 from an account in which reimbursement checks are electronically deposited to his campaign fund.
Texas Ethics Commission attorney Tim Sorrells, citing a commission advisory opinion, said an officeholder must repay his campaign account if he is reimbursed by the state "for something that was purchased with political contributions."
Sorrells added, "There's not anything specific in the law requiring the reimbursement to be disclosed in the campaign finance report."
Any repayment simply would get lumped into "cash-on-hand" figures that show up on every campaign finance report
Reports never add up
A tally of all Taylor's political contributions and expenses since arriving in the Legislature in 2003 shows a cash-on-hand balance that is roughly $30,000 less than it would be had all the travel reimbursements been repaid, Palmer said.
Taylor said he could not explain that discrepancy but emphasized campaign expense reports never add up - a point confirmed by Sorrells - because the reports simply track money instead of providing a balance sheet.
Palmer's complaint has triggered an investigation by the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney.
The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Driver, a veteran legislator, had pocketed more than $17,000 in double-billed travel expenses. Driver said any errors were unintentional. That case remains under investigation, said Gregg Cox, head of the prosecutor's Public Integrity Unit.
Cox said it is not possible to determine if complaints of double-billing travel expenses constitute criminal conduct or a civil matter without legal research.