12/19/19

A Luxury Lifestyle on the Donor Dime

You know those iffy charges from your last work trip that you decided not to include on your expense report because they’d probably get flagged by HR? Whether it was that $10 candy from the hotel mini-bar, a round of golf that wasn’t necessarily all business, or new underwear because you forgot to pack any, some expenses are more questionable (or embarrassing) than others.

The same thing happens with politicians, only they are spending campaign donations — and their spending reports are public record. While newcomers and challengers usually need every donation dollar they can get to launch a successful campaign, incumbents’ accounts are often already flush with cash — so flush, in fact, that you might be surprised where they’re spending some of those dollars. (Thank you, Austin PACs and lobbyists.)  

Politicians like to brag about how they’ll cut government spending and eliminate waste, if we’ll only send them to Austin (or DC) and put them in charge. We decided to see what kinds of wild purchases our incumbent politicians spent donor money on the last time they were in Austin. We dug through their spending reports for the first half of 2019, while the legislature was in session, and found some interesting expenditures. (If you normally consider financial reports a bit dry or boring, make this your first foray into data analysis. Seriously. Getting a glimpse into another person’s spending choices can be fascinating, and most campaign expense data is available to the public, if you know where to find it.)

Take a look. And remember, campaign contributions are not the only money at politicians’ disposal while they work. They also receive $33,940 in total compensation for their time in Austin for the five month legislative session, in addition to being wined and dined by lobbyists. So the expenses highlighted here are just some of the ones they felt comfortable using campaign money to fund. 

With lobbyists’ perks and taxpayer-funded paychecks in mind, check out how some Texas politicians are spending their campaign cash.

Sporting Events:

State Senator John Whitmire (SD15, Houston) is quite the sports fan. From his campaign account, Whitmire spent $15,445 on tickets to see the Houston Texans, $12,272 on tickets to the Rockets, and $10,303 to see the Astros. Must be good seats. Must be nice.

Self-Care:

All that lawmaking must be stressful on politicians and their staff. State Senator Kel Seliger (SD31) spent $1,000 at Viva Day Spa, $100 at Bella Salon Austin, and $90 on Mantis Massage. 

Interior Design:

Swank offices seems to be all the rage among Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals. Justice Leslie Lester Osborne and fellow Justice Robbie Partida-Kipness both assumed office in January, 2019, and both hired “Rooms by Leah” with campaign contributions to deck out their chambers.

Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen also spent nearly $20,000 on interior design services. Too bad he won’t be back to enjoy it.

Hotels and Resorts: 

State Representative Jeff Leach (HD 67) seems to really like the Fairmont Hotel in Austin. Even though he already recorded a $6,000 expense covering his “room and board” while in Austin, Leach also racked up 20 separate stays at the Fairmont Austin for $11,265, each tagged as “candidate lodging” charges. 

Likewise State Representative Roland Gutierrez (HD 119) also appreciates a luxury hotel. He spent $19,000 of his campaign cash on Austin hotels during the session, including the Four Seasons, Fairmont, Westin, and W Austin. 

Land Commissioner George P. Bush spent donor dollars outside Texas, including some fine establishments in Palm Springs, Denver, and Chicago.

Traveling in Style:

Two of  our Railroad Commissioners paid steep bills for private air travel in and out of Austin. Christi Craddick and Ryan Sitton spent $35,000 and $13,000 respectively for chartered flights.

State Senator Judith Zaffirini (SD 21) likes for her donors to pick up the tab for cars and their maintenance. In just one six-month reporting period, Zaffirini paid $21,458 to North Park Lincoln, Lincoln Automotive Finance Services, General Motor Finance, and Covert Auto Group, plus $1,500 for fuel and service. Another $1,000 of donor money went to car washes. Squeaky clean.

Chick-Fil-A:

Yes, Chick-Fil-A gets their own category. Texas Governor Greg Aboott likes to tweet and eat Chick-Fil-A. 

This session Abbott signed Senate Bill 1978, dubbed the “Save Chick-Fil-A” bill, into law as a response to the City Council of San Antonio banning the fast food giant from their airport. Abbott also put his money — er, well at least his donors’ money — where his mouth is, spending $2,824 on chicken sandwiches and waffle fries this session. Hope he shared.

Abbott isn’t their only fan in Austin. Chick-Fil-A easily took the top spot for fast food chains, with 45 politicians and PACs eating there this spring on their donors’ dime. 

These are just a few examples of ways Texas politicians have spent their campaign cash. Interested in how your representatives are managing the money you donated? Search here to see their cash-on-hand and spending for yourself. 

We’ll be taking a break for the rest of 2019 to enjoy the holidays with our families. Join us in 2020 as we continue to bring you the answers you need about the money in Texas politics, along with some big announcements and new features you don’t want to miss!

From all of us at Transparency Texas, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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