Oh, Now They Care About Ethics
Former Democratic rep gets $10,000 fine; similar fine for Republican successor was reduced
It's extremely rare when the Texas Ethics Commission penalizes elected officials who are late filing their campaign finance reports. But the TEC made a rare exception last week and fined former Rep. Ann Kitchen $10,000 for failing to report in-kind contributions received in her unsuccessful 2002 re-election campaign. The Austin Democrat, who corrected the omissions in a revised report submitted May 17, 2004, had asked the commission to waive the fine but was denied what is routinely granted others as a matter of course. Tim Sorrells, assistant general counsel at the TEC, said he wasn't at the Jan. 14 meeting when the decision was made and couldn't offer an explanation. "I'm not going to speculate or give you my opinion," he said. At Kitchen's request, the commission is expected to reconsider the matter at its March meeting.
According to the commission, Kitchen failed to disclose more than $100,000 worth of in-kind contributions in her eight-day pre-election report filed Oct. 28, 2002. The corrected version lists the Texas Democratic Party as the source of in-kind contributions made in the form of direct mailing and polling. Kitchen, who lost to state Rep. Todd Baxter, is one of four Democratic plaintiffs suing the Texas Association of Business and two leaders of Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, claiming they violated state campaign finance laws to ensure GOP House victories in the 2002 general election. The effort targeted Kitchen in a number of negative "issue ads."
Kitchen said she was unaware of her own reporting errors until TRMPAC attorneys questioned her during deposition. Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle has spent the last two years investigating TRMPAC and TAB on allegations that they used illegal corporate contributions to finance the issue ads, among other things. Baxter, like several other House Republicans, was a beneficiary of campaign contributions that figure into Earle's probe. As well, Baxter, in early 2004, faced a $10,000 TEC penalty for inadvertently omitting a TRMPAC contribution on his 2002 campaign finance report. The TEC later reduced the fine to $300. "I would ask that [the commission] give me the same fair and equal treatment that they gave Mr. Baxter," Kitchen said.
In an affidavit Kitchen filed with the TEC last August, the former representative explained that her campaign staff inadvertently missed reporting the in-kind contributions. "I have not looked at these reports since I lost the election," she wrote, "and as soon as the mistaken omission was brought to my attention I immediately filed a corrected report." She added that a $10,000 fine "for someone no longer in office does not appear necessary." Kitchen, who represented an older configuration of District 48, is considered a potential successor to veteran District 49 state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, should he ever decide to step down.
Mike Lavigne, the state Democratic Party's chief of staff, expressed surprise at the TEC's actions but declined to speculate on whether politics might have influenced the decision. "I sure wouldn't want to impugn the [TEC]," Lavigne said. "But it is a question worth asking, because it sounds like [Kitchen] made a good-faith effort to correct the errors."