► San Antonio News/Express – 11/26/10 - Straus makes ethics reform a 2011 priority Print E-mail

San Antonio News/Express – 11/26/10 - Straus makes ethics reform a 2011 priority

By Gary Scharrer- Express-News
AUSTIN — Amid recent admissions from one lawmaker that he double-billed travel expenses, as well as ongoing questions surrounding the handling of expense money by another, the Legislature must address ethics reform when it convenes in January, the house speaker said.
A better system must be in place, “to make sure that legislators are not being reimbursed by both the state and their campaigns,” said House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, in reference to records that show House Republican Caucus leader Larry Taylor routinely pays for travel expenses from his campaign account and then seeks reimbursement from the state.
Taylor, of Friendswood, said he repays his campaign account after receiving a check from the state. But because of a loophole in state law, lawmakers are not required to report those reimbursements, making it nearly impossible for the public to know whether they really are repaying the money to their campaign accounts or pocketing it.
Taylor's admission comes on the heels of revelations that Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, reportedly double-billed at least $17,431 in travel expenses. Driver said the double reimbursements were unintentional errors.
Still, ethics, trust and public confidence are paramount in democracy, Straus said.
“The public trust is No. 1,” he said, “and without that we couldn't even begin to address these other challenges that we have.”
Because lawmakers are not required to disclose travel expense reimbursements, Taylor acknowledged his handling of expenses might look bad. But, he said, he always repays his campaign account after the state reimbursement arrives, and he produced some bank statements that back up his claim.
An ethics watchdog, however, filed a complaint against Taylor with the Travis County district attorney last week, questioning the lawmaker's online bank statements.
According to the complaint filed by Dave Palmer, a California-based ethics watchdog, Taylor has used his campaign/officeholder account to pay for $31,952 worth of travel expenses, including 90 airfares, 12 hotel bills, 5 conference registration fees and a car rental — all of which Taylor also billed to the state. The San Antonio Express-News independently validated at least 80 of the airfares that showed up on both Taylor's campaign expense account and in state vouchers for reimbursement since 2005.
Taylor acknowledged the loophole could invite dishonest politicians to pocket the state's travel reimbursement checks.
“I'd say 90-95 percent of the people here aren't going to be doing that. There are a few bad apples in every bunch,” Taylor said. “It will catch up with you at some point.”
There is no uniform reporting system for the handling of legislative-related travel, Taylor said.
“If I'm a wealthy person, I just would pay for (the travel expenses) out of my personal account and then when I get the reimbursement, I would put it right back into my personal account because it's all mine. I just don't have that kind of cash,” said Taylor, who owns an insurance agency.
Taylor shared a sample bank statement with the Express-News and Palmer: a December 2007 statement that shows Taylor transferred $17,509 from an account in which reimbursement checks are electronically deposited to his campaign fund.
Palmer said he has found about 10 other Texas lawmakers who have “double-billed” travel expenses. He hasn't filed complaints against them, he said, and still has about 75 more members to check.
Texas Ethics Commission attorney Tim Sorrells, citing a commission advisory opinion, said an officeholder must repay his or her campaign account if they are reimbursed by the state “for something that was purchased with political contributions.”
But, Sorrells added: “There's not anything specific in the law requiring the reimbursement to be disclosed in the campaign finance report.”
Any repayment would simply get lumped into “cash-on-hand” figures that show up on every campaign finance report.
A tally of all Taylor's political contributions and expenses since arriving in the Legislature in 2003 shows a cash-on-hand balance that is roughly $30,000 less than it would be had all the travel reimbursements been repaid, Palmer said.
Taylor said he could not explain that discrepancy, but emphasized campaign expense reports never add up — a point confirmed by Sorrells — because the reports simply track money instead of providing a balance sheet.
Palmer's complaint has triggered an investigation by the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Driver, a veteran legislator, had pocketed more than $17,000 in double-billed travel expenses. Driver said any errors were unintentional. That case remains under investigation, said Gregg Cox, head of the prosecutor's Public Integrity Unit.
Cox said it's not possible to determine if complaints of double-billing travel expenses constitute criminal conduct or a civil matter without legal research.
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