Did Rep. Debbie Riddle violate Texas election law?

An interesting thing happened at last week’s meeting of the Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club. State Rep. Debbie Riddle was on hand, along with her opponent Tony Noun, to try and pick up votes. I was surprised when she passed out copies of her official constituent newsletter, printed with your tax dollars. And mine. Here is a picture:

Outside of Rep. Debbie Riddle constituent newsletter.

Outside of Rep. Debbie Riddle constituent newsletter.

Inside of Rep. Debbie Riddle constituent newsletter.

Inside of Rep. Debbie Riddle constituent newsletter.

If you want an easy to read copy, click here get it off the State of Texas House website.

Here is a recording from the event – notice that she tells the crowd that it isn’t campaign material:

 

Also notice that she does in fact use it as campaign material – remember, her opponent had just given his spiel to the crowd and listen to the way she walks through the newsletter, especially the low-income housing section.

Now, take a look at Texas Election Code, section 255.003:

Sec. 255.003. UNLAWFUL USE OF PUBLIC FUNDS FOR POLITICAL ADVERTISING.

(a) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising.

(b) Subsection (a) does not apply to a communication that factually describes the purposes of a measure if the communication does not advocate passage or defeat of the measure.

(b-1) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not spend or authorize the spending of public funds for a communication describing a measure if the communication contains information that:

(1) the officer or employee knows is false; and

(2) is sufficiently substantial and important as to be reasonably likely to influence a voter to vote for or against the measure.

(c) A person who violates Subsection (a) or (b-1) commits an offense. An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.

If she didn’t violate that section, I don’t know what you would have to do to violate it. The Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club is full of lawyers and many were scratching their heads wondering why she would be so blatant about it.

Interestingly, she might have violated the rules in the first place, even if she hadn’t passed it out. Look at this slide from the Texas Ethics Commission on following the law:

Violations  of  the  law  often  occur  because
someone  finds it irresistible  to wrap up a  factual
explanation with a motivational slogan such as:

GOOD SCHOOLS ARE THE FOUNDATION
OF A GOOD COMMUNITY
or
EVERY CHILD DESERVES A GOOD EDUCATION

Another  common  misstep  is  to  include  “calls  to
action” such as:

PUT CHILDREN FIRST
or
SHOW THAT YOU CARE ABOUT EDUCATION

Remember:
No  matter  how  much  factual
information  about  the  purposes  of  a measure
election is in a communication, any  amount of
advocacy is impermissible.

A  violation  of  the  prohibition  is a Class A
misdemeanor.   This  means  that  a  violation
could lead  to  criminal  prosecution.    Also,  the
Ethics  Commission  has  authority  to  impose
fines for violations of section 255.003.

After reading that, read this from her newsletter about her bill to close the Harris County Department of Education:

The Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) is outdated and outmoded.

Is that a fact or is it a motivational slogan? Or this:

Wasted tax dollars are always bad, but especially when the wasted dollars could help our kids and schools.

Fact or motivational slogan?

Is anyone at the Texas Ethics Commission monitoring these newsletters?

 

Rep. Debbie Riddle addresses the Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club 1-23-14

Rep. Debbie Riddle addresses the Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club

Comments

  1. says

    I’ll agree with you on the first half, but I don’t know that I can do so on the second. I’d argue that the examples you provide fall into a third category that is neither factual statement nor motivational slogan. Rather, they are a statement of opinion — and the first might well be deemed factual based upon the information that follows explaining why HCDE is indeed outdated and outmoded because it no longer serves the purpose for which it was established. Also, the section of the pamphlet you linked to is referring to to statements intended to influence someone to vote for or against a ballot measure. Is there a measure on the ballot to eliminate HCDE?

  2. Jim in Houston says

    What a load of rubbish – section 255.003 I mean as applied to a newsletter regularly and lawfully published by the candidate in her capacity as representative and made available to prospective voters. Only lawyers and metaphysical philosophers could find this worth making a fuss about.

  3. Lisa says

    I don’t understand who in their minds will vote for this lady, who does nothing for the district, apparently doesn’t know from right to wrong, and very openly discriminates legal immigrants, our district 150 needs a change we need a rep who can represent us equally depending on our needs, please help is make that change

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