AUSTIN (AP) – Texas prosecutors are stepping up their investigation of a lawmaker who admitted he pocketed thousands of dollars in state travel reimbursements, just as officials are laying out plans to tighten ethics rules at the Capitol.
Assistant Travis County District Attorney Gregg Cox, head of the public integrity unit that oversees official corruption cases, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that prosecutors had begun reviewing the travel practices of Rep. Joe Driver before the November elections. Now that the elections are over, that review has turned into an active criminal investigation, Cox said.
“We were presented a complaint that appeared to be sufficient to require additional investigation to determine whether or not the law was violated,” Cox said. “Now that the election has passed the review, and the investigation is taking place.”
Driver, a Garland Republican who was re-elected to his tenth two-year term, has acknowledged that for years he collected reimbursements from taxpayers for travel he already had paid for using donated campaign money. He paid for luxury hotels, airline tickets, meals and conference registration fees with campaign funds and then submitted receipts for those same expenses to the state.
When he got reimbursed from the state, he just kept the money. Driver said he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong, but he reimbursed his campaign $49,426 after the AP revealed the double-dipping. Driver did not immediately return phone calls left at his legislative offices on Tuesday.
Word of the intensified probe comes as state House leaders are discussing ways to clamp down on ethical abuses. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth and a top ally of GOP House Speaker Joe Straus, said he plans to meet with the Texas Ethics Commission this week to explore changes to ethics rules
There are two changes Geren said he definitely wants. One would alter the voucher form that lawmakers use to get reimbursed from the state. Geren said he wants to add language to the form requiring lawmakers to swear that they are entitled to receive taxpayer money for the travel expenses they submit. He said he also wants to require lawmakers to disclose any reimbursements they make to their campaign from travel funds.
According to Ethics Commission officials, if lawmakers pay for travel with campaign funds and then get reimbursed from the state for the same expenses, they are required to pay back the campaign account. However, the rules do not require any public disclosure of the reimbursement. Geren said that needs to change.
“If there is some place where we mandatorily show we were reimbursed by somebody else or by the state, it would make it more transparent,” Geren said. “I’m going to work with the Ethics Commission to design a form that will accommodate that.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)