Friday, February 5, 2016

Paxton hits block on raising cash for defense

What do Ken Paxton and Bernie Sanders have in common?

Both lost extremely close votes this week.

The vote regarding Texas Attorney General Paxton wasn’t an election.

It was a decision by the Texas Ethics Commission not to approve an advisory opinion that would have let Paxton or his friends solicit out-of-state contributions to pay his criminal defense lawyers.

An anonymous person asked the commission to take a stand on whether any employee in the attorney general’s office can accept gifts from donors with no ties to Texas.

By state law, public officials cannot accept gifts from people under their jurisdiction.

For the attorney general, that’s everyone in Texas.

It’s possible the request was made on behalf of someone other than Paxton, but let’s hope not.

It would be unfortunate if the AG’s office was riddled with people who need to plead to non-Texans for financial help.

It’s bad enough that the head guy does.

Paxton has hired a first-rate team of lawyers to defend him from indictments for securities fraud.

And he’s being investigated in a old land deal as well.

This could get expensive.

Former Gov. Rick Perry, also under indictment, passed the $2 million point in legal bills last July and the meter is still running.

Perry has an advantage.

His alleged transgressions took place while he was in office and in connection with his job as governor.

So he has been able to dip into his substantial campaign war chest.

Paxton’s legal problems stem from purely private-sector things he did while he was a legislator.

And it’s not like Paxton is an assistant Longhorns football coach making nearly a million a year.

He has to get by on the $150,000 we taxpayers give him plus any money he made from his law practice.

Oh, and from referrals he made to an investment broker without telling his clients or, as required by a law, he voted for, registering with the state.

So it appears he or someone on his behalf asked for clearance from the Ethics Commission to raise legal defense funds outside of Texas from people who had no interest in decisions made by the attorney general or his office.

It’s hard to imagine there’s a large pool of cash available in that disinterested well, but we live in strange political times.

The commission staff drew up a proposed opinion supporting the idea.

Four commissioners voted for the proposal and three opposed it.

But it takes five votes on the eight-member commission to approve an official opinion.

So Paxton’s apparent one-vote victory was actually a one-vote loss.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the commission had agreed to the proposal.

I’ve seen them do some strange things through the years.

A county judge was found to have paid his wife $6,200 in campaign funds for bookkeeping services.

It was a clear violation of state law prohibiting politicians from paying campaign funds to spouses or minor children.

So the Ethics Commission fined the county judge — $100.

He paid it, of course, out of his campaign funds.

A couple years later the Commission fined a legislator $6,400 for paying his wife out of campaign funds, and ordered him to refund his campaign fund $25,000.

Sounds tougher, but he had paid his wife about $70,000 over the previous few years.

Then there’s the rule that says legislators can’t use campaign funds to buy Austin condos for use during sessions.

But the Commission had no problem with spouses buying the condos and renting to their husbands or wives.

The rent, of course, came out of campaign funds.

My favorite ruling involved a state official who listed in his financial report the gift of “a check” from a major political contributor.

Any gift over $250 must be reported.

As I noted at the time, it was like describing the gift of a ranch as “some dirt.”

An official opinion by the Texas Ethics Commission agreed with the official.

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