San Antonio state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, headed to a July 2012 runoff with Republican challenger Donna Campbell, drew fire from a political group before leading the May primary, including a claim about the cars he drives.
On its anti-Wentworth website, www.wentworthrecord.com, the Conservative Republicans of Texas PAC says: "Wentworth has used $211,743.96 in campaign contributions to lease luxury cars including the Lexus he currently drives." The claim appears under the heading "Bending the Rules."
Curiosity steered us to take a closer look.
A word: It’s legal for state legislators to lease vehicles with campaign funds so long as the vehicles are not for personal benefit. Put another way, Texas law permits campaign contributions to be used to pay expenses incurred while holding an elected office as well as those incurred while campaigning.
Conversely, state law bars candidates or officeholders from converting campaign funds to "personal use," which the law defines as a "use that primarily furthers individual or family purposes not connected with the performance of duties or activities as a candidate."
Austin lawyer Fred Lewis, who wrote a 2004 report detailing expenditures by Texas lawmakers on vehicles and other expenses, told us by phone that the leasing of cars is a "very common practice. There is nothing unusual about it in the least."
And the fact that Wentworth leases cars qualifies as old news.
According to a July 30, 2007, Houston Chronicle news article, Wentworth spent $20,308 from January through June 2007 to lease a Lexus. The newspaper quoted Wentworth as saying the campaign Lexus is in keeping with the kind of cars he drives in his personal life. He said it is necessary for driving the dangerous stretch of Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin. "It's a matter of safety," Wentworth told the newspaper.
Three years earlier, Chronicle columnist Rick Casey noted that Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis was paying $630 a month to lease a campaign vehicle and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, had plunked down $29,211 in campaign contributions for a "campaign vehicle." Casey said Wentworth and then-Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, had leased top-of-the-line Infiniti sedans.
We asked the PAC for the basis of its claim, especially the part about bending the rules.
Spokesman Allen Blakemore emailed us a spreadsheet listing car lease expenditures from 2000 to 2012 that he told us by phone were drawn from Wentworth’s campaign finance reports. We compared the research to Wentworth’s campaign finance filings, finding minor discrepancies with the research while otherwise confirming the PAC’s proclaimed cost of the leases, $212,446.20, over the dozen years.
We asked to interview Wentworth and heard from his campaign consultant, Bryan Eppstein, who declined to address the specific claim. Broadly, Eppstein said, Wentworth’s auto expenses are not unusual for a legislator whose district runs from part of Bexar County through four counties into a chunk of Travis County. Wentworth "travels across his district every day," and during this campaign he’s driven to 40 debates in six counties, Eppstein said.
In a follow-up interview, Blakemore asserted that Wentworth drives no other vehicles, so he must have used leased cars for personal purposes. Also, Blakemore said, Wentworth’s reported campaign contributions and expenditures fail to show the senator regularly reimbursing his campaign for times he used the leased vehicles for personal purposes.
Eppstein later said that Wentworth has three personal cars, also saying by phone that Wentworth has driven leased vehicles only for campaign or officeholder purposes.
Earlier, Eppstein provided a confidential June 9, 2009, order from the Texas Ethics Commission dismissing a complaint referring in part to Wentworth spending $54,740 in campaign funds on auto leases.
The order quotes Wentworth swearing that he used those vehicles for office-related purposes. "I have other vehicles for personal use, and personally pay the cost of operating the leased vehicles when they are used for personal purposes." Eppstein told us Wentworth’s statement that he paid for personal uses of leased vehicles was hypothetical.
The commission’s order notes that Wentworth swore that he used the leased vehicles only for official duties and used personal vehicles for personal purposes. "There is no evidence to contradict" those sworn statements, the order says, thus insufficient evidence that Wentworth violated the law.
Wentworth spent some $212,000 in campaign funds leasing vehicles, as the PAC says. Then again, such leases are allowed if the vehicles are used for officeholder or campaign purposes, which is how Wentworth's camp says he uses the leased vehicles.
All told, this claim portrays spending on a permitted activity as "bending the rules" without evidence of wrongdoing. We rate the statement as Mostly False.