|HARLINGEN, March 3 - A major in the Texas Rangers’ public corruption unit says he does not believe there is any more public corruption in the Rio Grande Valley than there is in other parts of Texas.
Shawn Palmer was asked if the Valley was more corrupt than other areas by state Sen. Eddie Lucio at a four-hour ethics training symposium held Sunday at the TSTC-Harlingen University Center. Lucio prefaced his question by saying the perception is that the border region and South Texas are more corrupt.
“I will tell you that corruption is everywhere. Just like a lot of things that happen here are talked about, are hot topics right now, the same things happen in other places in the state,” Palmer said. “I was speaking with a major from Houston and I don't see any difference in the number of home invasions here as opposed to Houston, the same with public corruption cases.”
Lucio may have asked the question in response to remarks recently by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. Abbott, who is running for governor of Texas, said that with all the public corruption that goes in the Valley the area resembles a Third World Country.
Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio was at the ethics training symposium. At the end of the event, Sheriff Lucio told the Guardian: “I take offense at people calling us a Third World Country. Corruption is everywhere. Wherever you find money, you find corruption. Like they say, money is the root of all evil.”
In his remarks, Palmer said the Texas Rangers have six public corruption units across the state. Palmer works in the South Texas unit and told a story about an investigation in San Antonio he participated in. He said it appeared to be a small case at first but ended up with charges of bribery, conspiracy and money laundering. It led to 11 people being indicted. Ten of those indicted pleaded guilty, the other one, a College Board trustee, pleaded not guilty. He got 12 years imprisonment.
Palmer urged elected officials and candidates to “stay away from the grey areas,” arguing that there was a fine line between illegal and unethical and a less fine line between unethical and inappropriate.
Speaking from the audience, consultant Paul Cowen said arenas that can be prone to corruption are planning and zoning boards and regional mobility authorities. The reason, he said, is that contracts discussed by such entities can be worth millions of dollars to engineering and architectural firms.
The ethics training symposium was co-hosted by Sen. Lucio and his son, state Rep. Eddie Lucio, III. Opening remarks were made by Julian Alvarez, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.
In addition to Major Palmer, the other featured speakers were Natalia Luna Ashley, interim executive director of the Texas Ethics Commission, and San Antonio Express-News reporter David Saleh Rauf, who specializes in campaign finance. Luna Ashley’s power point presentation was titled: Avoiding the Top 10 Most Common Campaign Finance Mistakes. Rauf’s power point presentation was titled: “The Public Trust – A Journalist’s Perspective.”
In his opening remarks, Sen. Lucio said: “I think it is important for us to be exposed as much as possible to the ethics laws, the rules that govern our elected and appointed offices; what we can do and can’t do, so the public can be proud of the way we conduct ourselves and how we perform our duties on their behalf,” said Sen. Lucio. “This will be one of a series of seminars we hope to put together that will benefit public officials throughout a four-county area.”
In his opening remarks, Rep. Lucio said: “Ethics is a continuing education, it is an ever changing field with decisions made in the courts, with technology and how it has changed the dynamics of how we fund raise and how we campaign. It is something we need to keep abreast of on a continuing basis.”
Luna Ashley is a native of Harlingen. Her presentation was absorbing because she allowed those in the audience to pepper her with questions as she gave her remarks. There were a lot of questions, many from candidates or office holders. Luna Ashley said the Valley is prone to violations by corporations giving campaign contributions to candidates. “Corporations cannot make a political contribution,” Luna Ashley said.
Luna Ashley said her agency fielded 16,000 calls in January and February of this year. She said any resident of Texas can file a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission and that one did not have to be a citizen to make a complaint. She said fines from $500 to $10,000 are levied on candidates and office holders who file their campaign reports late.
The No. 1 issue for the Texas Ethics Commission, Luna Ashely said, is sloppy or poor record keeping by candidates and office holders, while the second biggest problem is the wrongful use of political contributions. “It is illegal to convert political funds to a personal use,” Luna Ashley said.
Luna Ashley said a candidate is not permitted to receive cash over $100 from a single donor in a reporting period. To ensure compliance with the record keeping mandate, she said it is best if candidates accept all contributions by check. She also said that a candidate cannot keep a campaign item for personal use after campaign is over.
In answer to a question from Rep. Lucio, Luna Ashley said the use of candidate office for a coffee meeting or phone bank operation must be reported as an in-kind contribution to a campaign. And in answer to a question from Sheriff Lucio, Luna Ashely said the statute of limitations for ethics complaints is either two or three years.
There were a lot of laughs from the audience when state Rep. Ryan Guillen said many ladies that work on campaigns prefer being paid by cash. Luna Ashley said it is best if candidates keep a record of every transaction.
Luna Ashley also said that if someone gives a candidate $1,000 in cash and says they do not want their name reported, the best thing for the candidate would be to give the money back. She said raffles are not permitted for fundraising events. “Do not accept anonymous contributions; do not ‘pass the hat’ or use a contribution jar,” she said. Candidates must also know the name of each contributor and the amount of each contribution, Luna Ashley said, and told candidates to be on “high alert” towards end of filing period to make sure they do not receive contributions from corporations. “An anonymous contribution may be given to a recognized tax-exempt charity before end of reporting period,” she said.
With regard to the late filing of reports, Luna Ashley said that for the 8-day pre-election and semi-annual reports due after an election, a fine of $500 a day is levied. She said a candidate can get on the delinquent filer list within two months of being late.
In his remarks, San Antonio Express-News reporter Rauf said public trust in Congress has dwindled since the 1960s. He said this has not happened as much with state or local elected officials. There was a lively debate about why this was, with one explanation being the rise of Talk Radio and its hostility to the federal government.
In addition to Sen. Lucio, Rep. Lucio, Rep. Guillen, RGVP President Alvarez, and Sheriff Lucio, those in attendance at the symposium included Hidalgo County Commissioners Dan Sanchez and David Garza, San Juan Mayor Pro-Tem Armando “Mando” Garza, Harlingen City Commissioners Victor Leal and Michael Mezmar, Mercedes Police Chief Olga Maldonado, who is running for city commission in La Feria in May, San Benito mayoral candidate Celeste Sanchez, Congressional District 34 Republican candidate Larry Smith, and Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council Executive Director Ken Jones.
Sen. Lucio wrapped up the symposium with this comment: “We heard a lot of very important information that will help us all be better public officials. We want candidates to do the right thing during the election process.”