► Plaza de Armas – 07/26/12 – The Watchdawg barks at Jeff Wentworth Print E-mail

Plaza de Armas – 07/26/12 – The Watchdawg barks at Jeff Wentworth

 
The Watchdawg barks at Jeff Wentworth
By Gilbert Garcia
 
Jeff Wentworth had just completed a San Marcos campaign forum Wednesday when I asked him about the criminal complaint filed against him in Travis County two months ago. It was the first he’d heard of it.
 
Wentworth can be excused for not keeping up with the complaints directed at him, because the source of these attacks – a disabled, 67-year-old, retired Army veteran from Folsom, Calif., named Dave Palmer – has bombarded the veteran state senator with ethics complaints and accusations over the last four years. Palmer isn’t obsessive, necessarily, he’s just a guy who derives entertainment from spending eight to 10 hours a day in front of a computer screen, combing through campaign finance reports and state-comptroller spreadsheets, all in the hope that he can bust some lawmaker for ethical misdeeds.
 
In recent years, Palmer has filed more than 100 complaints against various Texas public officials, but Wentworth stands out as his favorite target. What drives this campaign-finance vigilante who calls himself The Watchdawg? He swears it’s neither political partisanship nor personal animus.
 
“I have no grudge against (Wentworth)," says Palmer, a long-time registered Republican who doesn't hesitate to tangle with members of his own party. “I’ve never met him, so obviously it’s nothing personal. I just hope he’s made to answer for what he did.”
 
The crux of Palmer’s latest complaint is that the San Antonio Republican has repeatedly double-dipped, by billing both the state comptroller’s office and his own campaign for the same expenses. Over the years, Palmer has also hounded Wentworth over the senator’s history of using his campaign funds to lease Lexus cars. Wentworth has argued that the luxury rides were necessary to meet the demands of Senate-related trips between San Antonio and Austin. Palmer contends, however, that Wentworth has been overly lavish in his choice of cars, and alleges that the senator is using them for personal (and not just professional) purposes.
 
Wentworth says that whenever he bills his campaign for work expenses, he always reimburses the campaign as soon as he receives a reimbursement payment from the state comptroller (and says he has a long string of canceled checks to back up his case). He adds that only in the last year have the state’s campaign finance reports included a section (Schedule K) that allows the candidate to show that they’ve reimbursed their campaign. And he's utterly unapologetic about his choice of cars.
 
“(Palmer) has no idea. He doesn’t understand Texas law and doesn’t care to understand Texas law,” Wentworth says. “All of this is bullshit. It’s already been thoroughly vetted for over a year by the Texas Ethics Commission and they dismissed it.”
 
Wentworth dismisses Palmer as a “gadfly” who is “convinced that everybody in public office is a crook and he sets out to prove it, with very inflammatory rhetoric.”
 
Palmer, an Ohio native, says he started sniffing for political corruption in the late ‘80s, after his wife was involved in a serious car accident and he found himself appalled by the “incompetence” of the Ohio civil court judges he observed. He started digging for dirt on judges and attorneys, and after moving to California, he broadened his focus to include lawmakers – most often, those in California or Texas.
 
“I didn’t want to be self-centered about it,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was the only victim in the world.”
 
Along the way, he wallpapered the offices of the Texas Ethics Commission with so many complaints – and agitated so many Texas legislators – that the Lege passed a bill last year that prevented non-Texans from filing complaints with the TEC. The bill’s author, the late Ken Legler, had been one of Palmer’s chief targets.
 
That’s why Palmer filed his latest Wentworth complaint with the Travis County District Attorney’s office – because he no longer has the TEC as an option. Gregg Cox, director of the Travis County DA’s special prosecution division, says his office generally refrains from investigating complaints that can impact a particular political race, and that Palmer’s complaint against Wentworth will continue to be “parked” at the DA’s office until after next Tuesday’s runoff.
 
Legler’s 2011 bill highlighted the strange investigative zone that Palmer occupies: Even though he’s regarded as something of a crank by legislators, they take him seriously enough to want to stop him. And he’s produced results.
 
Palmer filed a complaint with the Travis County District Attorney’s office last year against state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) over Fraser’s use of campaign funds to buy nearly $8,000 in clothes. Fraser responded by reimbursing his campaign.
 
In 2008, the Texas Ethics Commission responded to a Palmer complaint by fining state Rep. Rene Olveira (D-Brownsville) $3,000 for failing to report his largest contributors’ occupation and employer info. The following year, the Commission fined Edinburg-based District Court Judge Mario Ramirez $900 and required him to reimburse his campaign nearly $4,000, all as a result of a complaint from Palmer.
 
But Palmer has yet to nail Wentworth, though not for lack of trying. They’ve carried on a sporadic war of words over the years, with Palmer writing Wentworth in 2008 to accuse him of taking “hubris and hyperbole to new and as yet unseen levels.”
 
A personal note to Donna Campbell: If you win next Tuesday’s runoff, prepare to have The Watchdawg nipping at your heels.
 
Gilbert Garcia is the author of Reagan's Comeback: Four Weeks in Texas That Changed American Politics Forever, now available from Trinity University Press.
 
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