Presidio County candidates may have violated campaign finance laws
By ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN
PRESIDIO COUNTY – It appears that most, if not all, Presidio County candidates failed to maintain proper campaign finance reports during the 2014 primary election.
State law requires all candidates to record contributions and expenditures over the course of an election. All candidates throughout the state – including local candidates – should have filed three campaign finance reports.
In addition, candidates must file a campaign treasurer appointment form – even if the candidate is the treasurer – before accepting any contributions or spending any money on a campaign.
Even if a candidate has not received any contributions nor made expenditures during a reporting period, state law requires that “the report shall indicate that fact.”
According to the Presidio County clerk’s office, the custodian of campaign finance records for local candidates, only two candidates filed such forms: county treasurer-elect Frances Garcia and incumbent county clerk Virginia Pallarez.
Garcia and Pallarez both filed that paperwork on Monday, the day before the primary election day.
State statute specifically prohibits a candidate for public office from accepting any contribution or making any expenditure “at a time when a campaign treasurer appointment for the candidate is not in effect.”
A candidate isn’t required to file a campaign treasurer appointment form if there is one already on file from a previous election and if there is no change to that report.
Outgoing county judge Paul Hunt explained this week that he already has a campaign treasurer appointment form on file, from his first county election in 2010. But his campaign finance report is another story. Hunt said he has not accepted any campaign contributions, though he has made campaign expenditures.
“I haven’t tallied them up in a report, which is overdue,” Hunt said. “I’ll take full responsibility for the reporting because I am the designated treasurer for my campaign.”
Despite being late on reporting finances, Hunt said that the process is integral to government and electoral transparency. He added that campaign finance reporting at the county level is “a little lax.”
“If we don’t follow the rules on transparency, then shame on us,” said Hunt.
Hunt’s challenger, county judge-elect Cinderela Guevara, is the only candidate interviewed who confirmed to have accepted campaign contributions.
Guevara told The Big Bend Sentinel and Presidio International newspapers that she received just under $500 in contributions. Some of her contributors include former county treasurer Larry Skiles, Jack Brunson, Siria Acosta, and at least one “anonymous donor.”
Guevara’s contributors cannot be confirmed since her campaign finance reports aren’t available from the county clerk’s office.
“I’ll be filing my report,” Guevara said on election day.
Natalia Luna Ashley, executive director of the Texas Ethics Commission, made it clear what the campaign finance reporting rules are for candidates.
“The law does require candidates for local offices to file campaign finance reports,” Ashley said from her Austin office.
Outgoing county commissioner Frank “Buddy” Knight said he didn’t receive any campaign contributions because he wanted to be “free and clear.” Asked whether he made campaign expenditures, Knight replied, “Oh yeah.”
Knight also said he has a campaign treasurer report on file from his first election in 2010. His opponent, commissioner-elect Loretto Vazquez said he received no contributions either, but he did make expenditures. Other than filing to run for office, Vasquez said he didn’t file any other reports, including a treasurer appointment form.
Garcia, the incoming treasurer, said she didn’t file a campaign treasurer appointment form or campaign finance report because the county clerk’s office told her she didn’t have to file any additional paperwork.
“They said if you’re not accepting contributions, you don’t need to file one,” Garcia said. “So I didn’t question it.”
Marfa city councilman and precinct 1 justice of the peace-elect, David Beebe, explained that he declined numerous contributions to his campaign, but he did spend money for his campaign.
Asked whether he filed a campaign finance report or treasurer appointment form, Beebe said, “I have not turned in anything to anyone.”
Randall “Buck” Wood, an Austin attorney who specializes in election and campaign finance law, said Presidio County candidates’ lack of reporting doesn’t bode well. Wood is a former elections division director in the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, where he enforced state election law.
“If they have not filed reports, you betcha they violated the law,” Wood said. “It sounds like someone’s not paying attention to the law.”
A candidate who knowingly accepts campaign contributions or makes expenditures without a treasurer appointment form on file, commits a Class A misdemeanor.
Candidates who fail to report campaign contributions or expenditures commits a Class B misdemeanor.
When brought to his attention, Presidio County Attorney John Fowlkes said “it would appear” that the candidates should have filed that paperwork, but that he doesn’t have the authority to prosecute the candidates.
“The district attorney or the attorney general would have to enforce that,” Fowlkes said. “The prosecution of any public official is above my head.”
A spokesman in the attorney general’s office explained that if there is a criminal matter at hand, the district attorney usually handles those cases and that the attorney general’s office only gets involved if a district attorney refers a case to them.
But 83rd District Attorney Rod Ponton, who has prosecutorial jurisdiction over Presidio County, said his office is not an investigative office.
“We don’t initiate cases on our own,” Ponton said. “Other than you’re phone call, no one has made a criminal complaint.” Ponton added that a “bonafide” law enforcement entity would have to conduct an investigation and then refer the case to his office in order to prosecute public officials.
“My office isn’t investigating anything and my office hasn’t been referred anything,” Ponton said.
Contrary to Fowlkes’ claim, Wood, the campaign finance attorney, said that in Presidio County, the responsibility to enforce campaign finance laws would fall to the county attorney.
In the past, Wood has seen candidates and office holders fined up to five-figure penalties for failing to comply with campaign finance reporting.
“If they don’t pay the fines, the Texas Ethics Commission turns it over to the attorney general and they sue,” Wood said. “They do it. I saw it the other day.”