By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
City Councilman Michael Yarbrough may be awaiting trial on bribery and conspiracy charges in the FBI City Hall Sting, but it hasn't stopped him from making creative use of his campaign accounts. In his latest escapade, revealed in a campaign finance report, Yarbrough spent nearly $10,000 from his Council campaign account last summer on his rather mystifying write-in race for state agricultural commissioner.
Yarbrough never reported the receipt of that money on his state-mandated reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission on the ag commissioner race. It's as if the Councilman had created his own Bermuda Triangle where campaign money can disappear into thin air -- or into someone's back pocket.
Yarbrough asked supporters to mail contributions for the write-in campaign to an office with an unmarked door in a building at 1314 Texas, on the east side of downtown. At the time, the Councilman claimed he was waging a serious effort, though in the November election he only netted 1,481 votes in Harris County. That works out to a little less than $20 per vote if he actually spent his Council account outlay and the $17,000 contributed by supporters on the effort. Yarbrough's zany campaign reports for the write-in campaign included a $4.31 expenditure at Petco, as well as healthy chow-downs at restaurants in New Mexico, Dallas, Austin and Houston.
The state race conveniently provided Yarbrough with the ability to hit up supporters during a period when he otherwise could not have accepted campaign money. City Councilmembers can only accept contributions for their Council accounts in a period starting shortly before and ending after municipal elections.
In his city filing that covered the last half of 1998, Yarbrough reported spending more than $11,000 from his city account. In July he reported a payment of $7,500 to his ag commissioner campaign, followed in October by two more similar fund transfers totaling $2,400. Reports filed with the ethics commission during the same period show no corresponding entries for the cash flowing into Yarbrough's ag commissioner account.
Neither Yarbrough nor his campaign treasurers returned phone inquiries from the Insider regarding the ultimate destination of the money from the city account. During his testimony at the first City Hall Sting trial that ended in a hung jury, Yarbrough revealed he has no personal bank account, keeps cash in a safe in his office, had not filed taxes for several years and rarely bothers with such complications as receipts for expenditures. He explained that he often accepts cash donations from supporters and then doles out the money to needy people in a modern Robin Hood fashion.
Notoriously late in his campaign filings, Yarbrough previously told the Insider that reporting violations "don't mean shit." He also admitted he had no receipts to account for a $10,000 cash withdrawal from his campaign fund during a previous election.
Texas Ethics Commission attorney Karen Lundquist says that Yarbrough's City Council and state campaign money are technically identical and that Yarbrough violated no law by not reporting it on his state filing. But she acknowledges that the maneuver makes it impossible to determine how the money was actually spent.
Assistant Harris County District Attorney Bill Taylor, the public integrity section prosecutor under D.A. Johnny Holmes, says his office would be willing to take a look at Yarbrough's campaign cash swap, but only if some interested citizen brings it to his attention.
"The most likely scenario is he failed to report it," says Taylor, of the Councilman's campaign cash switcheroo. "I would betcha he spent it.... How is the question. If he didn't report it, there's something rotten in Denmark."
If so, it's been rotten for quite a while now.
-- Tim Fleck