Does Not Compute

Loopholes still hamper electronic reporting of campaign finances

In these modern times, it seems most people need a Palm Pilot to schedule their next trip to the bathroom. So it's hard to imagine that our fine Texas legislators would shun computers. Especially when it comes to tracking the contributors who bankroll their campaigns.

But according to Texans for Public Justice, several Houston-area officeholders argue that computers are nothing more than a nuisance. By claiming an exemption to a 1999 law that requires state politicians to file donor data electronically, these public servants are making it harder for others to discover who funds their runs for re-election.

Not that anybody should care, apparently.

"The average Joe is out flying kites with his kid, not looking on the computer wondering, 'What's that scumbag doing?' " says matter-of-fact state Representative Joe Nixon. Nixon, a Republican in the 133rd District seat of west Houston, is one of nine area incumbents who have made the Texans for Public Justice "Luddite List." That statewide roster totals 36 legislators, 20 judges and ten other Texas officials.

"It's hard to believe they're working on index cards," argues Craig McDonald, the TPJ director. "It's unfathomable in this day and age."

The Austin-based watchdog group says the law is important because it makes donor information accessible via the Internet. Before the bill passed, the only way to discover which lobbyists were courting your rep was to travel to Austin and flip through dusty file cabinets, or wait for the Texas Ethics Commission to look up the information. Now, unless a candidate claims an exemption, anyone can log on to the commission's Web site and get the information by searching either the names of candidates or contributors.

"It's public access to information I think is relevant to their decision," says Karen Lundquist, general counsel for the commission. Legislators and judges have to file campaign contribution and expenditure reports with the commission each January and July. Lundquist says the commission provides free software to the legislators, making the electronic filing process as painless as possible. They can even file by e-mail.

Still, the group says some legislators use loopholes to keep on filing the old-fashioned way. The law exempts politicians from electronic filing if they raise less than $20,000 in contributions or if they sign an affidavit claiming neither they nor their fund-raisers uses computer equipment to keep current records of contributions. McDonald thinks exemptions that were meant to protect "mom and pop campaigns" are now being abused by seasoned legislators.

TPJ names state Senator Mario Gallegos -- a Democrat from the 6th District who has spent 10 years in the legislature -- one of the leading Luddites. Although the ethics commission reports that Gallegos raised nearly $250,000 from July 1999 to last December, Gallegos still says his fund-raising doesn't involve computers.

"There's no excuse for it," says McDonald. "Gallegos raised a quarter of a million dollars. He could have spent $100 to get someone to type the information into the software."

A spokesperson for Gallegos's office declined to comment, saying that only his chief of staff could speak to the issue -- and that she was away dealing with her flooded home.

Nixon, also on the list of exempted officials, thinks the issue is something that matters only to political junkies. He claims that he and most of the listed legislators run such small campaigns that using a computer to track donor data is not necessary. In fact, most of them run unopposed.

"I don't raise much money and no one runs against me, thankfully," says Nixon, a seven-year state rep. According to the commission, Nixon raised around $40,000 over an 18-month period -- fairly small potatoes in the world of campaign finance. But it's not a question of money, says Nixon. It's a question of practicality.

"The only people who look that stuff up are those who are very interested in politics," he says. "Most people are out there living life and having fun."

State Senator Jon Lindsay may quarrel with his colleague's assessment that nobody cares. Lindsay's 19-year reign as Harris County judge in 1994 ended amid fallout from -- among other controversies -- allegations over misuse of campaign money. He was accused of pouring nearly $200,000 of campaign cash into his son's scuba-diving enterprise in the Caribbean. Lindsay left that office and still had loads of leftover contributions to help in his senate bid.

In fact, he's donated nearly $122,000 of his political treasury to philanthropic causes -- and rolled up $150,000 in campaign contributions over the 18 months ending last December.

But the legislator, who could not be reached for comment, swore he lacked a computer to track all the largesse. So Lindsay's another name on the Luddite list.

TPJ argues that it's the spirit of the law that counts. If -- as Nixon suggests -- the average citizen is too busy flying kites and having fun, McDonald says he should realize that less than 5 percent of all campaign donations comes in amounts less than $100.

That means it's the big corporations and special-interest groups that are deciding who has the power, he explains.

To remind Texans of that, TPJ is busy preparing a new list of legislators who have claimed exemption to the electronic disclosure law by stating that they have raised less than $20,000 in contributions -- when the group claims that they in fact have raised more than that. The organization newsletter claims these representatives are guilty of "false modesty."

"Money makes the world go round in Austin," McDonald concludes.

Local Luddite Lawmakers

According to Texans for Public Justice, here are the state officeholders from the Houston area who claim to not use computers in tracking campaign contributions and spending. That exempts them from the new law requiring electronic filing of such information.

Sen. Mario Gallegos, Dem.
Sen. Jon Lindsay, GOP
Sen. William Callegari, GOP
Rep. Harold Dutton, Dem.
Rep. Joe Nixon, GOP
Rep. Talmadge Heflin, GOP
Rep. Joe Crabb, GOP
Rep. Kevin E. Bailey, Dem.
Rep. Al Edwards, Dem.

Area Luddite JudgesCharles Seymore, GOP, 14th Court
Timothy Taft, GOP, First Court
Murry Cohen, GOP, First Court
Paul C. Murphy, GOP, 14th Court

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