Texas lawmaker admits he double-billed and took taxpayer money for campaign-funded travel

By Jay Root, AP
Monday, August 16, 2010

Texas lawmaker he doubled-billed for travel

AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas state representative who rails against the evils of runaway government spending admitted Monday that he has pocketed thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for travel expenses that his campaign had already funded.

Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, faced with findings from an investigation by The Associated Press, acknowledged in an interview that for years he has been submitting the same receipts — for luxury hotels, airline tickets, meals, fees and incidentals — to both his campaign and to the Texas House of Representatives. He has also been collecting thousands of dollars in state mileage reimbursements for travel in vehicles for which his campaign has shelled out more than $100,000 since 2000.

The AP’s review of hundreds of pages of state and campaign travel records found that Driver double-billed for at least $17,431.55 in travel expenses, much of it at fancy out-of-state hotels, since 2005. The number could go higher, but House travel records before mid-2005 have already been destroyed. Driver has been in office for 18 years. The double-billing figure does not include the vehicle expenses.

Driver, an anti-tax conservative on the powerful House Appropriations Committee — which oversee how state dollars are spent — said he thought it was OK to bill two entities for the same expenses. He said he routinely pays hotels and airlines with donated political funds and then submits the same expenses to the state — taking the taxpayer money for himself.

“Now you’re scaring the heck out of me,” Driver told the AP, adding: “It pretty well screws my week.”

Two ethics watchdogs say that lawmakers who submit the same expenses to two different entities could run afoul of both civil and criminal law. Fred Lewis, an independent political watchdog who has been urging ethics reform in Texas, said Driver is probably not the only legislator collecting taxpayer money for travel that their donors actually pay for.

“This is a very serious problem,” Lewis said. “It’s wrong, because you can’t ask the state to reimburse you for something for which you have not incurred an expense.”

Driver insists he thought the double-billing was perfectly appropriate — until talking about it with the AP.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like it is now. If you bring it up that way,” he said.

Driver, former chairman of the House Law Enforcement committee, claims that state ethics authorities approved the arrangement years ago, but he couldn’t remember who told him that or when it was. He said he was told to just keep the state money and not reimburse his campaign for the expenditure.

The Ethics Commission says it doesn’t provide such advice because campaign money can’t be legally converted to personal use.

Ethics Commission Deputy General Counsel Tim Sorrells said any state reimbursements for campaign travel would have to “go back to the campaign, not for your personal use.”

Driver vowed to pay back the state for any dollars that he was not entitled to receive.


Associated Press Writer Sarah Portlock contributed to this report.

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