► NY Times – 04/14/13 – Private Jets, Country Clubs Soften Blow of Meager Pay Print E-mail

NY Times – 04/14/13 – Private Jets and Country Clubs Soften Blow of Meager Pay 



Many Texas lawmakers are quick to name the sacrifices they make to serve: the meager state pay, the grueling hours, the time spent away from their families and their day jobs.
But in other ways, life in the Legislature has its advantages. The perks associated with the job — travel, hotel upgrades and campaign cash spent on luxury gifts — can augment lawmakers’ lifestyles considerably.
Take Senator Troy Fraser, Republican of Horseshoe Bay, a 16-year veteran of the upper chamber who previously served in the House. Over the last three years, Mr. Fraser, the Senate Natural Resources Committee chairman, spent more than $300,000 from his campaign account maintaining his personal airplane, at least $33,000 on country club expenses and more than $4,000 on suits, on top of thousands of dollars on upscale hotels for conferences and events from Hawaii to Buenos Aires, according to his campaign finance reports.
Between 2008 and 2010, he claimed more travel per diem payments — 361, valued at more than $58,000 — than any other member of the Senate. And in the last several years, taxpayers paid for him to attend at least nine policy conferences in destinations like Puerto Rico and Santa Fe, N.M. In some instances, Mr. Fraser flew his own plane, receiving mileage reimbursements at up to triple the price of a commercial ticket.
Mr. Fraser said all his campaign expenses and Senate reimbursements were related to his role as a legislator and, in particular, his expanded duties as the chairman of a major committee.
The airplane costs, which he said he incurred flying across the state for official business, “do not cover 100 percent” of his bill. He justified the country club membership by saying he made a weekly golf outing “available to all members of the Legislature and all lobbyists.” And the clothing he bought was purely for use during the legislative session, he said. In 2011, he reimbursed his campaign for the suits after an ethics watchdog filed a complaint against him. Mr. Fraser said he still disagreed with the decision.
Mr. Fraser said that in recent years he had moved away from requesting state reimbursement for out-of-state travel, choosing to finance it through his campaign instead. He said the per diems were a reflection of his retirement from the private sector; the Legislature is now his day job.
“I’m one of the few who almost overreports,” Mr. Fraser said, adding that every state expense is approved by the Senate and every campaign expenditure meticulously itemized. “My constituents and my supporters understand very clearly what I’m doing with money.”
Mr. Fraser is hardly the only lawmaker to reap on-the-job benefits. His colleagues use campaign cash to drive BMWs, and trade thousand-dollar gifts from Neiman Marcus, Tiffany, Montblanc and Four Seasons spas. Some rent costly condos in Austin and buy tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tickets to sports events.
Critics say such spending — which is allowed under the state’s campaign finance rules as long as it is directly tied to state or legislative business — blurs the line between the permissible and the ethical. At best, they argue, it takes advantage of campaign donors;  at worst, Texas taxpayers.
“They’re enriching themselves by having their living expenses paid for ad infinitum,” said David Palmer, a California-based campaign-finance watchdog who filed so many complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission on legislators’ use of their campaign cash that lawmakers passed legislation limiting such complaints to Texans.
Rita Kirk, director of the Southern Methodist University Maguire Ethics Center, said the root of this behavior was Texas’ part-time Legislature, where “the only people who really can get there are people who are wealthy enough to self-finance or have wealthy people invest in them.” She said it established an “elitist government style” in which proper stewardship of taxpayer or donor dollars could at times be compromised.
Lawmakers justify charging the state or their campaign contributors for conferences in exotic locales if it qualifies as official business;  they are out, they say, doing the state’s bidding.
Between 2007 and 2011, legislative travel records show, former Senator Jeff Wentworth, Republican of San Antonio, charged the state for 17 conference trips, including one to El Conquistador, a resort in Puerto Rico. Senator Rodney Ellis, Democrat of Houston, had at least 9, including one stay at the Golden Nugget hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Former Representative Warren Chisum, Republican of Pampa, billed the state nearly $4,000 for an energy meeting in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and more than $2,700 for a meeting at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs.
For some lawmakers, conference trips turn into de facto vacations. They pay out of their own pockets to tack on extra days, bring along their families and enjoy spa treatments, bars, casinos and rounds of golf.
Senator John Carona, Republican of Dallas, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1990, said that as a “matter of personal policy,” he had never attended conferences on legislative business, largely because he thinks taxpayers should not be footing the bill. Nor does Mr. Carona, a wealthy businessman who travels frequently for work, generally accept travel per diems when the Legislature is not in session, to “avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
But he has sought thousands of dollars’ worth of mileage reimbursements from the state for traveling on his company plane, which he says he does for convenience and efficiency. He has also used his campaign account to buy gifts for his colleagues from the luxury retailers Bachendorf’s and Salvatore Ferragamo, and to buy a longtime employee a $6,000 retirement present from Eiseman Jewels.
Such gifts are common; lawmakers routinely give one another presents to celebrate a new baby or a wedding, congratulate a legislator for carrying a hefty bill or honor one for leading a key committee. In 2009, Senator Bob Deuell, Republican of Greenville, and other members of the Senate State Affairs Committee bought Chairman Robert Duncan, Republican of Lubbock, a $1,380 guitar.
The most notorious of such gifts dates to the 1990s, when Kevin Bailey, then a Democratic representative from Houston, was arrested and accused of threatening his girlfriend with a gun. He was cleared of any charges, but the gun, a .22-caliber Derringer, lived on in infamy: it had been given to him by the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee as a thank you for Mr. Bailey’s help passing the state’s concealed-handgun law.
Mr. Carona said legislators had “no business” complaining about their state stipends or working conditions.
“Each and every one of us made the choice to run for the office, and few are eager to give up the post,” he said. “The compensation and perks are more than sufficient for most citizen legislators here in Texas.”
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