Texas lawmakers, judges, attorneys owe $1.3 million in unpaid ethics fines

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Ethics Commission is now complying with a state law that requires the agency to tell prosecutors when someone fails to file campaign finance records. Our analysis of years worth of candidate filings shows the commission can’t provide records to show it’s held hundreds of candidates accountable.

That’s helped to contribute to nearly $2 million in unpaid ethics fines, owed by current and former candidates, as well as, dozens of lobbyists.

In Texas, lawmakers and lobbyists can face criminal charges for not timely filing Personal Financial Statements and campaign finance records. The forms are the only way the public knows how a candidate earns his money, who is funding their campaigns and how that campaign cash is being spent.

According to state records, 263 candidates failed to file campaign finance reports since 2005. They also failed to pay the fines associated with the violations. In total, those debtors owe the state $1,145,487 in unpaid fines. Another 174 candidates failed to timely file a Personal Financial Statement (PFS), and then failed to pay the fine for that violation leaving an additional $114,500 in unpaid fines. Lobbyists who’ve broken the law owe another $74,500 in unpaid ethics fines.

State law mandates the Texas Ethics Commission refer late PFS filers to a prosecuting attorney. However, the law doesn’t require the commission to refer those who fail to timely file campaign finance reports (reports that show political contributions and campaign expenditures), but it doesn’t prevent them from proactively doing so.

A KXAN analysis of years of Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) records shows the commission hasn’t fully followed the mandatory reporting law, which has kept some lawmakers from being held accountable, one of whom is State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City.

Reynolds currently owes $52,000 in ethics fines-the most of any lawmaker-for failing to file campaign finance and his PFS on time; with some of those filings more than two years past the deadline.

Reynolds isn’t the only Texas lawmaker on the Ethics Commission’s debtors list. KXAN’s analysis of the list shows two other Texas House of Representatives members with unpaid, delinquent ethics fines: Austin-area Democrat Rep. Dawnna Dukes and Fort Worth Democrat Rep. Nicole Collier. Both Collier and Dukes each owe the state $500 for missing a deadline and neither has paid, records show.

Dukes never responded to messages asking about her unpaid fine. Collier responded, disputing the $500 unpaid fine showing on the commission’s site, “A review of my Texas Ethics online account does not reveal an unpaid $500 fine, in my name at, the Texas Ethics Commission, for filing a 2017 campaign finance report late. However, if there is a valid balance due, it will be paid,” Collier wrote in an emailed response to KXAN.

A closer look at Reynolds’ case shows he’s missed one-third of the filing deadlines since he first ran for office in 2008. Commission records show he never filed nine campaign finance reports between January 2015 and July 2017. Records show he failed to file his PFS for 2016 and 2017, which could have subjected him to mandatory criminal referral but records show the Texas Ethics Commission never forwarded his case to a prosecutor.

KXAN made multiple attempts to interview Reynolds about his investigation but he never returned any of our calls to his capitol and district legislative offices. He also never returned emails to his legislative and business email addresses.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds speaking with KXAN's Jody Barr in January of 2018. (KXAN Photo)

In January, KXAN Investigator Jody Barr found him at a public meeting at the capitol. When asked about his past due filings, Reynolds responded: “Now is not a good time right now. I have to review my notes for the next hearing. If you would have scheduled it with me, I would have been able to get a time where I could have met with you.”

When Barr told him we’ve reached out to him numerous times with no response, Reynolds said, “Obviously, you’re trying to ambush me and it’s not a good time, so thank you,” as he walked towards the committee room. Before he left out the door, we asked if he was planning to pay his fines and files his reports and he replied with a “Yes.”

Reynolds filed the two late PFS documents 20 days after we questioned him at the Capitol. The TEC confirms Reynolds still has never filed seven other campaign finance report forms.

“To disregard that, to me, is a disregard for democracy,” Austin-area state Rep. Celia Israel told KXAN. “If you don’t adhere to the guidelines, you don’t believe in following the rules, and if you don’t believe in following the rules, then why would you want to be a public official that we should all trust?” Israel asked.

Israel shares a seat on the House Elections Committee with Reynolds–the committee that helps write the campaign finance laws Reynolds violated when it levied fines against him. She’s also a member of the same political party.

“It is ironic, it is unfortunate. I would think that it would be perceived as embarrassing, but ultimately the voters have also got to see that it’s embarrassing,” Israel said, “It puts a stain on the honor of those of us who are simply trying to do the best we can for our constituents and for the state of Texas.”

Top 5 Debtors Statewide

 Status when FinedFine Amount
1. Rep. Ronald ReynoldsState Representative$48,486
2. Joe A. Foster Jr.Candidate for District Judge$30,500
3. Christopher D. ChristalCandidate for State Senator$22,500
4. Jesus A. MendozaCandidate for State Representative$22,500
5. Wesley Shane NelsonCandidate for State Representative$22,000

Top 5 Debtors Austin-area

 Status when FinedFine Amount
1. David PalmquistCandidate for Agricultural Commissioner$12,500
2. Colin J. GuerraCandidate for State Representative$5,600
3. Leonard M. MartinezCandidate for District Judge$4,100
4. George E. EmeryCandidate for State Representative$3,500
5. Kevin P. LudlowCandidate for State Representative$2,400

Texas law requires the commission to report anytime someone “knowingly and willfully” violates the law when it comes to timely filing a Personal Financial Statement. Finding out whether the TEC had met that requirement was impossible to answer because of the commission’s recordkeeping.

“We don’t know the referral rate,” Ethics Commission chairman Steve Wolens told KXAN. Citing “holes” in the commission’s internal recordkeeping, Wolens said there was no way to know between 2005 and 2013 who the TEC was supposed to have referred to prosecutors, or if the commission ever did. “We can’t figure it out.”

The commission hired its first-ever enforcement director in 2015.

However, commission records we received under the state’s open records act show the TEC has made criminal referrals before. Between 2013-2016, the TEC sent the Travis County Attorney’s Office a list of 26 people, seeking prosecution for failing to file campaign forms. The agency only filed 10 criminal charges–eight of those were dismissed and two are still pending today.

On Jan. 28, the commission, using the new “paperless” criminal referral system, sent three more candidates names to the county attorney’s office for prosecution: Wanda C. Rohm, Jay Winter, and Sharon Breckenridge Thomas. That same day, the commission sent two lobbyists over for prosecution: Jayne Lawler and Steven Ray.

“It was a trial run,” TEC’s general counsel Ian Steusloff told KXAN when asked whether the commission had finalized a system for referring lawbreakers. The commission was still meeting with prosecutors in late January working out the details of a referral system. Commission records show a “permanent, paperless” criminal referral system was finalized and put into place on January 28.

The commission’s failure to prosecute these cases means some lawmakers have gotten away with it. State law sets a statute of limitation on the prosecution of these cases at 24 months. If the charges aren’t filed within that time, the crime can never be prosecuted.

Reynolds, for example, hadn’t filed one of his PFS reports in two years and the other was one year late before Reynolds filed it earlier this month.

“Some would look at this and say: how serious is the Texas Ethics Commission on criminal referrals,” Barr asked Wolens, pointing to the Reynolds example.

“I just don’t know any of the facts of that and any matters regarding complaints like this, initially, are confidential. So, I can’t comment on whether this has been taken up or not taken up by the commission,” Wolens explained.

Wolens said he only learned about the lapse in prosecution through KXAN’s request for an interview for this investigation. “We’ve done our best because you raised the issue when you called me at my office in Dallas. We discussed it on the phone. You raised these questions and because of that we were happy to have it briefed today and thank you so much for bringing it to our attention, it was very nice of you,” Wolens told KXAN.

The commission does not have a plan to refer any of the people who violate the law when it comes to failing to file any other form that’s not a PFS, Wolens said. “We only send what the state authorizes us to send. The legislature would have to tell us to do that,” Wolens said of any referrals dealing with non-PFS campaign finance forms.

State records show the commission is referring those cases to the Texas Attorney General’s office for collections. The AG’s office does not handle prosecution of these cases, but is acting as a collections agency to collect the unpaid ethics fines; fines connected to violating the state’s campaign finance reporting law.

Attorney General collections records show between Jan. 1, 2013-Jan. 1 2018, the TEC submitted $1.2 million in unpaid fines to be collected but the AG has only collected slightly less than $300,000–a 24 percent collection rate.

State law doesn’t prevent any of the people on the Ethics Commission’s unpaid fine list from running for re-election. In fact, Reynolds is currently on the ballot for the Primary Election.

Israel believes the committee she and Reynolds hold seats on might have to draft a bill to address ethics fines and reelection.

“One angle might be you don’t get to be on the ballot again until you clear this-and not just clear it-but back to my point, it’s not the fine so much as it is the reports,” said Israel.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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