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:
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
EVERY CHILD DESERVES A GOOD EDUCATION
Another common misstep is to include “calls to
action” such as:
PUT CHILDREN FIRST
SHOW THAT YOU CARE ABOUT EDUCATION
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?