APNewsBreak: Texas House halts plans to shred lawmaker travel records at prosecutors’ request

By Jay Root, AP
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Texas House halts plans to shred travel records

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas House officials have halted plans to shred legislator travel records after prosecutors asked that they be preserved as part of a criminal inquiry into possible abuses at the state capitol.

The office of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, which oversees public corruption investigations in Austin, asked the Texas House of Representatives to preserve records that were headed for the shredders Wednesday as a new fiscal years begins. The House only keeps five years’ worth of travel records submitted by members, but officials are holding on to all of them now that a criminal probe is under way.

Prosecutors are looking into taxpayer reimbursements collected by Republican Rep. Joe Driver, who represents a slice of east Dallas County. Driver admitted in a recent interview with The Associated Press that for years he has collected reimbursements from taxpayers for travel he already had paid for using campaign money.

Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican who oversees House administrative matters, said officials would “fully cooperate” with the district attorney’s office and already had taken steps to preserve the records.

“The 2005 records are going to be retained for as long as the district attorney wishes us to do that, until they can look at whatever they want to look at,” Geren said. At the beginning of each fiscal year, the House shreds any travel records more than five years old. Geren said he has issued an order to halt the destruction, which usually takes a few days.

Driver’s campaign manager, Craig Murphy, said Tuesday that the north Texas lawmaker was “in contact with the DA’s office.”

“We’ll give them anything they ask for,” Murphy said.

Driver has said that for years he has submitted the same receipts — for luxury hotels, airline tickets, meals and fees — to his campaign and to the Texas House of Representatives. The Garland Republican said any errors were unintentional. His campaign earlier announced he was putting $49,426 into his campaign account — money he claimed as reimbursements from the Texas House.

He could owe more, but the House travel records before 2005 already had been destroyed and Driver’s campaign said he was unable to calculate the amount of any double-billing that happened more than five years ago. Driver, first elected in 1992, said he didn’t know when he began pocketing taxpayer money for expenses picked up by his campaign.

Government transparency advocates say the case highlights the need for better record retention policies. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is pushing the Legislature to adopt standardized procedures so agencies don’t destroy records too quickly or adopt wildly different standards. The group also has been critical of Gov. Rick Perry’s controversial policy of destroying e-mails every seven days.

“We would like to see something that would be standardized and simple for everyone to follow so that you don’t have all these different policies,” said foundation executive director Keith Elkins. “Right now there is no rhyme or reason to the policies.”

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