AUSTIN (KXAN) - Luxurious cars, extravagant gifts and overseas flights. Those are not things usually associated with running for the Texas Legislature. But a KXAN news analysis of campaign reports filed by Texas lawmakers since January 2009 revealed a wide range of spending habits from little to lavish.
Elected officials are required to file campaign reports at the Texas Ethics Commission each January and July, detailing contributions, expenditures and amount of cash on hand in their campaign accounts. Such disclosures allow donors and the public to know who is contributing to campaigns and how that money is being spent.
In the hotly contested midterm elections, millions of dollars flowed into campaign accounts. Voter David Thomas donates to candidates he supports because he understands, he said, that running for office is expensive.
"It costs money to print signs, to send out mail," he said. "They have to pay for people that are on their staff that run their campaigns, gas, all the expenses you'd think someone would have in going out and meet the public and get the vote."
But Texas law allows elected officials to use their campaign contributions for more than getting elected.
"The rule of thumb is that you can use your campaign money for anything that relates to you being a legislator," says Texas state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin.
That gives lawmakers a wide berth for spending - outside campaign signs and keeping the lights on.
There are only a few ways they can't spend their campaign funds . They can't buy real estate and they can't convert it to "personal" use.
That means no homes or condos and no spending that primarily benefits the personal lives of the officeholder and their families.
"I know some legislators that, I think, that cross the line occasionally," said Naishtat. "I'm so careful about what I do with my money, because I don't look at it as being my money."
His frugality is apparent when comparing his campaign filings to some other lawmakers. He drives a 1998 Ford Taurus. "It gets me everywhere I want to go," said Naishtat.
But campaign reports show choice of transportation varies from one lawmaker to another.
Many legislators use campaign contributions to lease cars, trucks and SUVs. And those leases range from less than $300 to more than $1,300 per month. Many lawmakers' campaigns lease Lexus, BMWs, Jaguars, Escalades and other high-end models. Gas, insurance, maintenance and registration are also paid with campaign funds. Some lawmakers drive their own cars and are reimbursed for mileage. If they are traveling on official business, the state of Texas reimburses them for mileage.
Some lawmakers spend their donors' money on private airplanes. Texas state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, owns a twin-engine Beechcraft that he sometimes uses to travel throughout his district, which stretches from Horseshoe Bay to Big Spring. According to reports filed since January 2009, he's spent $245,971 of his donors' money on fuel and maintenance for his plane.
Texas state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, reported in 2009 that he reimbursed his company, Associa, a total of $73,412 for the use of its private plane.
Texas state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, leases a plane through his campaign as well. In 2009, he spent $55,070 for the lease, fuel and pilot expenses.
Former House Speaker Tom Craddick spent $15,834.37 on a private plane in 2009.
Lawmakers travel by commercial aircraft, too, with campaign cash. Although most of it is in the United States, some venture overseas.
Fraser and his wife traveled to exotic locales such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Panama, Costa Rica, Sweden and Norway.
Texas state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, traveled to Belgium and Qatar. Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, went to South Africa. Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, went to Berlin, Czech Republic and Iceland.
Lawmakers whose districts are outside the Austin area are allowed to use their campaign money to pay for temporarily living in Austin during the legislative session. That, too, varies from lawmaker to lawmaker.
Some legislators share an apartment with another lawmaker. Others lease condos or homes. Some opt for extended stay hotels. Some pay rent for staff members, too. Estes pays the $820 monthly rent for an apartment for a staff member in Austin, as well as his $3,225 monthly rent for an Austin condo.
During the legislative session, lawmakers are paid a per diem to offset the cost of being away from home. They are also allowed to use campaign donations.
Many believe lawmakers spend evenings being wined and dined by lobbyists. And while that does happen, lawmakers also tap their campaign accounts for fine dining. During the 2009 Session, many lawmakers spent donors' money dining at Sullivan's, III Forks, Eddie V's, Trulucks, Perry's, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and other fine-dining locales. Some treat their entire staffs to meals, too. St. Sen.
Carona spent $28,741 on staff meals from January to June 2009.
In 2009, Carona also spent $4,176.96 in finance charges for his Capital staff credit cards.
Buying gifts is a popular way to spend campaign donations as well.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money was spent on gifts from Neimans, Coach, Tiffany's, Saks 5th Avenue, Capra & Cavelli, even Victoria's Secret.
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, spent $1,858 at Best Buy for a staff member's retirement gift. At the end of the session, legislative committees often spend hundreds of dollars on high-end gifts to their committee chairs.
The House Natural Resources Committee gave its chairman, Democrat Allen Ritter, a .32-caliber pistol from McBride's. Members of the Defense and Veteran Affairs Committee gave its chairman, Dallas Democrat Allen Vaught, a $400 gift certificate to Cabela's. The Senate Finance Committee chipped in to give its chairman, GOP Sen. Steve Ogden, a $771 gift certificate from Cabela's. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee gave its chairwoman, Sen. Jane Nelson, a $500 gift certificate to the Four Seasons Resort in Irving.
All the above lawmakers, by the way, followed the law and reported their gifts. Not doing so can land people before the Ethics Commission - and in worst cases, a judge and jury. Most recently, Texas state Rep. Kino Flores, a Valley Democrat, was convicted and now faces jail time for not disclosing gifts on his ethics report.
Flores spent $94,500 to the Minton Lawfirm to fight those criminal charges stemming from ethics violations. Many lawmakers, in fact, used their donors' money to pay fines assessed by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to properly file financial reporting reports. One lawmaker paid a $213 fine for illegal signs.
And then there were some expenditures that you wouldn't expect to see, such as St. Rep Wayne Christian payment of $70 to Dept of Public Safety for his Concealed Handgun License, also memberships to AARP and AAA. Many lawmakers spent their campaign funds on tickets to attend their alma maters' sporting events.
Lt. Gov David Dewhurst spent $110,501.30 on law firms in 2009.
So, who really pays for the trips, the cars, the planes, and gifts? It's not always the private individual citizens who live in the districts they represent.
Since January 2009, Fraser reported he raised $405,602. Of that, only $9,875 came from individuals in his district. That means 97 percent of his funding came from political action committees, lobbyist and people outside his district.
Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice said that can create a conflict for lawmakers.
"So when the lobby comes to them and asks them for a legislative favor, it's really hard to say no - because you're saying no to a good bottle of wine, you're saying no to a good trip overseas, you're saying no to more than just that lobbyist's piece of legislation," McDonald said. "You're saying no to a piece of your lifestyle you've gotten accustomed to."
Not all lawmakers are swayed by campaign donors, nor do they have a large amount of cash sitting in their accounts. Some campaigns are in debt, having leftover loans from campaigning for office.
But advocates like McDonald said, regardless, voters need to be more informed in how lawmakers spend their campaign contributions.
"Oh, absolutely. I think if you care about the size of your electric bill, if you care about affordable insurance, if you care about affordable healthcare, the special interests who are paying for the campaigns and assisting our legislators in enhancing their lifestyle are the ones who are against those things," said McDonald.
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