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Anita G Ken Paxton removes a tooth from notoriously toothless Texas campaign finance laws

For the past two and a half years, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has declined to sue hundreds of candidates and elected officials who altogether owe more than $700,000 to the state in unpaid fines for campaign reporting violations. Campaign finance laws are meant to give the public insight into politicians’ possible influences and allow voters make informed decisions and hold officeholders accountable. The Texas Ethics Commission levies the…

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has refrained from bringing legal action against hundreds of candidates and elected officials who collectively owe the state over $700,000 in unpaid fines for campaign reporting breaches over the previous two and a half years.

Campaign finance regulations are designed to enlighten the public about potential political influence, empower voters to make informed choices, and hold elected officials responsible.

Candidates and elected officials who, for instance, neglect to submit timely reports on their campaign financing and spending can be fined by the Texas Ethics Commission. Other offenses include submitting false or incomplete information, exploiting public or campaign funds for private gain, or creating and disseminating deceptive political advertising.

PERSONAL CONCERNS: AG Ken Paxton refuses to provide the Texas Ethics Commission with the addresses of his properties.

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By design, the state places little constraints on political expenditures, and Republican politicians, who are often against government control, embrace the rules. It is one of just 11 states with no restrictions on individual political contributions.

And aside from letter notices, the Texas Ethics Commission, the regulatory body in charge of upholding such laws, doesn’t have many resources at its disposal to pursue lawbreakers. Referring delinquent filers’ cases to the attorney general’s office is its final line of defense.

Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, a watchdog group for the government, stated that there are “very few restrictions when it comes to campaign funding in Texas, and the few that we do have are obviously not implemented.” What use do the rules even serve?

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Due to lax campaign finance restrictions, Texas lobbyists and politicians avoided paying $800k in fines.

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The most recent example of Paxton and the Texas Ethics Commission’s adversarial relationship is his refusal to pay the fines. Although Paxton’s office is tasked with defending state agencies in court, he has declined to do so against a still-pending lawsuit brought by political supporters of his that seeks to dismantle the agency. In recent years, Paxton’s office has questioned the constitutionality of the agency’s mission. The extraordinary action forced the state to hire outside counsel, which cost the state over $1 million.

The agency has been dubbed indefensible by Paxton’s office in the past, but he did not reply to a request for comment.

Marc Rylander, Paxton’s then-spokesman, stated in 2018 that “all of our choices are driven by the same principle: We take the duty to protect the state seriously and consistently defend agency enforcement actions wherever compatible with our obligation to maintain the Constitution.” “However, where we conclude that those two obligations are in conflict, our first duty is to protect the Constitution and the fundamental liberties it ensures to every Texan,” the statement reads.

This fall, Republican Paxton is running for re-election. After his former aides accused him of accepting bribes and abusing the authority of his office to favor a buddy and campaign donor, he was indicted on felony securities fraud charges in 2015 and is currently the subject of an FBI investigation.

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His filing of what the Texas State Profession termed a frivolous lawsuit to challenge the results of the 2020 election will also result in sanctions from the bar. Paxton has denied doing anything illegal.

Paxton also often filed his own campaign finance reports late or incomplete throughout the early part of this year’s primary season, but he avoided penalties and made revisions as needed. Nearly all of the $2.8 million he raised during the reporting period was lost due to a report that was missing donor information. It took over two weeks to update the campaign.

“No free passes for terrible performers,” says the opponent.

Former Republican state representative for a district in Houston and former chair of the Texas Ethics Commission Chase Untermeyer expressed astonishment that no lawsuits had been brought. He claimed that although there has always been a minimum amount required to file a lawsuit, up until Paxton, the attorney general’s office never stopped doing so. Between 2016 and 2017, Untermeyer presided over the commission while serving on it from 2010 to 2017.

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Untermeyer stated, “In theory, I believe the attorney general’s office should represent the ethics commission and uphold both the letter and the spirit of the law. However, I recognize they have a limited staff and may limit or put a floor on the number of times they consider enforcement for very practical and possibly financial reasons.

He claimed that frequently, the agency’s only recourse is to “name and shame” late filers on a list that is made available to the public on its website. Nearly 500 people were on the list as of last month, and their combined fines totaled more than $2 million.

After the office filed 36 lawsuits in 2019 and 15 in 2018, according to agency documents, the office has stopped pursuing collections cases.

In a statement to Hearst Newspapers, Paxton’s Democratic opponent Rochelle Garza said that this is “just another example of Ken Paxton’s ineffectual use of his authority.”

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Bringing accountability to our election system and performing his job are not as important to Paxton as they are to his radical ideology, she claimed. “I’ll restore honesty and responsibility to our government. Under my leadership, bad actors won’t get any more free passes.

Top debtors are two Democrats.

Once fines total $1,000, the Texas Ethics Commission refers cases to the attorney general’s office. Smaller unpaid fines frequently don’t warrant the expense of filing a lawsuit.

The Commission has no control over whether or when to bring a lawsuit to recover an unpaid penalty or any post-judgment remedies, according to J.R. Johnson, the agency’s general counsel. “Generally speaking, agencies, like the Texas Ethics Commission, do not have the independent ability to bring a lawsuit on their own; instead, they must seek the attorney general’s assistance.”

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Texas can place a hold on candidates’ and elected officials’ financial accounts with the state, if they do, but unlike other states, it cannot charge tax liens or garnish pay. As a result, Texas has few alternatives when it comes to financial consequences. If that fails to work, it must choose whether to pursue a civil lawsuit asking a judge to issue a payment order.

Even this, Texas’ most zealous tool for going after late filers, is rarely successful. According to a 2020 Hearst Newspapers study, of the almost $1 million in fines that a court ordered to be paid, about 72% were never collected and were deemed “uncollectible” by the attorney general’s office.

Even though the attorney general’s office has gone to court at least seven times since 2008 in an effort to collect the fines, Democratic state Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City still owes more than $65,000.

Since 2011, Reynolds, a former personal injury lawyer who was later disqualified, has served in the legislature. When contacted via email, Reynolds stated that he has been paying and will be done by December 31. He contested the outstanding balance but did not specify what he thought it should be.

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Reynolds explained the reason for the late payments as “I had a delay due to COVID-19.”

Marilynn Mayse, who has the second-highest amount of outstanding penalties, will be sworn in as a criminal court judge for Dallas County in January after winning the Democratic primary and facing no Republican opposition.

On at least portion of the more than $42,000 that she owes, the state has previously launched a lawsuit. A attempt for comment from Mayse went unanswered.

While acknowledging that the attorney general’s office has many “weighty issues and critical topics to handle” and that many fines are very small, Texas Ethics Commission Chair Mary Kennedy said in a statement that there is still more that could be done to boost collections.

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taylor.goldenstein@chron.com

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