|► Houston Chronicle - 07/08/08 - Vets ethics crusade targets Texas lawmakers, judges|
Houston Chronicle - July 8, 2008 - Vets ethics crusade targets Texas lawmakers, judges
Vets ethics crusade targets Texas lawmakers, judges
He files complaints, and criticizes Whitmire for using campaign funds for sports tickets
By Gary Scharrer - Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — A California disabled veteran who spends six days a week sifting through campaign finance reports has filed complaints against 10 Texas legislators and 15 judges with the Texas Ethics Commission, ranging from failing to identify campaign donors to using campaign money for personal use.
One of the complaints takes aim at state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, for dipping into his massive campaign chest for $165,061 worth of Houston Astros, Texans and Rockets tickets — expenses the veteran says personally benefit the senator.
"Does every voter get a free ticket to the ballgame?" wonders Dave Palmer, who filed the complaint. "It's a wonder that the Astros don't ask him to call balls and strikes."
In his campaign finance report, Whitmire says the expense was necessary for "constituent entertainment."
Whitmire said he often gives some of his sports tickets to firefighters and police officers or other supporters who otherwise might got get a chance to attend.
Whitmire also said he wants to be seen supporting Houston's pro teams and routinely has opportunities to attend the games as guests of others. On Thursday, he attended the Astros game at Minute Maid Park with a guest and gave his seats, which are behind home plate, to firefighters.
He discounted Palmer's complaints.
"It's a total non-issue by some character out in California, so I don't care what he thinks," Whitmire said Monday when the commission received Palmer's complaints.
Taking a constituent to a ballgame paid by campaign funds could be an appropriate expenditure, said Tim Sorrells, spokesman for the Texas Ethics Commission.
"If it's to benefit himself or family and absent a candidate or office holder role, it would not be proper," Sorrells said. "But the statute does allow someone to make an expenditure that's related to candidate office holder activity."
The commission generally makes a case-by-case decision on such complaints, which could take months, Sorrells said. The agency can levy fines up to $5,000 per violation or triple the amount at issue.
Whitmire has nearly $3.5 million in his campaign fund. The veteran politician buys four season tickets for Astros and Texans games and two season tickets for the Rockets from his campaign fund, he said.
Most of Palmer's complaints accused the legislators and judges of not fully identifying major campaign contributors. Other complaints accused them of using campaign funds for personal travel, leasing cars and gift-giving.
One complaint included an image of a clown to poke fun at an Austin state district judge for taking $1,449 in campaign money to buy an evening gown for an awards banquet. Using campaign money on clothing considered "dual purpose attire" is inappropriate, Palmer said in his complaint against 98th state District Judge Jeanne Meurer.
"Unless Jeanne purchased a clown suit, then this expense is a total sham," Palmer wrote.
The judge said she's "heard the clown description before in response to my clothing sense."
"But heading short-notice to a statewide formal gala honoring me, I knew I needed to show up in something more than black robe or business suit. Thus, the sequins," Meurer said.
Meurer said she's worn the gown to "so many public events and made so many presentations in that outfit that I'm sure my supporters are saying Bozo needs something new to wear."
But she offered an apology if she offended anyone for using campaign money to buy it.
Palmer's complaint also takes issue with a state district judge in Dallas for pulling $1,830 from a campaign account to preside over "the renewed wedding vows" of an unnamed couple in Las Vegas.
State District Judge Anne Ashby said she believes the trip was an appropriate use of campaign money.
"I renewed wedding vows for supporters who have been significant in my political career," she said. "My husband paid for his own transportation and other expenses."
Palmer's complaint against Whitmire also accuses the senator of not fully identifying major campaign contributors by not including the donor's occupation and employer. The requirement became law in 2003 for those who contributed at least $500. Whitmire has failed to fully identify more than 250 supporters whose contributions amounted to more than $400,000, Palmer said.
Whitmire said he was unaware of the requirement and will instruct the person who prepares his reports to amend them.
Palmer, who lives in Folsom, Calif. said he began investigating judicial misconduct in 1995 based on personal experience in Ohio. He said he invests much of his time looking at campaign finance records to expose officials who he believes are playing fast and loose with the rules.