BY Jay Root and Shannon Najmabadi
Appointees of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick raised a record-setting $5.3 million for the 2019 inaugural festivities, two days’ worth of VIP events that included a ball with country crooner George Strait and a candlelight dinner with the state’s top elected officials.
They reported spending every dollar of it. But don’t ask for any receipts.
The Texas Tribune tried this summer to obtain expense records from multiple state agencies as well as the inaugural committee, a group of private donors appointed by Abbott and Patrick. They claim no such records exist.
“We have conducted a thorough search,” the group’s former executive director, Kim Snyder, who serves as Abbott’s campaign director, said in an email last month. “The 2019 Texas Inaugural Committee has no responsive records.”
The Tribune filed a lawsuit last month under open records laws, seeking to discover what happened to the $5.3 million raised through ticket sales and donations from top lobbying firms, corporations and banks, wealthy businesspeople and trade groups. No taxpayer dollars were expended on the inaugural celebrations, according to the governor’s office.
Bill Aleshire, the attorney representing the Tribune, said the expenditure of money by governmental entities — whether they get it from taxpayers or deep-pocketed contributors — is one of the “core pieces of information the public is entitled to see.”
“The committee is a governmental body by law and is required to keep records,” Aleshire said. “They are not allowed to keep secret the expenditures by this public entity any more than any other public entity can keep that secret.”
The only accounting the committee, which is created by state law, has given the public came in its “final report” to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. In a one-page list of cash receipts and disbursements, the report gives 11 broad categories of expenditures.
Among them: $2.4 million for the inaugural ball and special events; $931,000 for fundraising; $899,000 for payroll; $800,000 in charitable donations; and some $210,000 for printing, professional fees, processing fees, travel and “miscellaneous.”
The Tribune asked the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor to help get basic information about the expenditures, such as who was paid to raise the money, the names of people or entities receiving large outlays and which charities got donations. Most of those questions went unanswered.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman said no one on the committee and no one who donated to it received any of the money spent, either personally or through their companies, and around $11,000 was transferred to a state inaugural fund to ensure no taxpayer dollars are spent if additional expenses come in. Wittman also said 30 charities across the state received the $800,000 in donations. But he declined to name them, declined to say whether bank records or receipts could be located and declined to answer whether Abbott felt the public deserved to know who got the $5.3 million.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the nondisclosure fits into what he believes is “a standard modus operandi for Texas government to keep things as quiet as possible.
“This is another way for donors to have a connection to Texas politicians,” he said. “This is a tight-as-bark-on-a-tree relationship between money and politics in Texas. That, just when you think you can put money in politics aside for a party, partisan fundraising becomes a big function.”
Appointed in November, the Texas Inaugural Committee swiftly raised $5.3 million for the two-day inaugural celebrations, with the overwhelming majority of the money coming from private contributions ($351,000 was raised through ticket sales).
According to a list provided by the committee in February, the Associated General Contractors of Texas, AT&T, businessman Bobby Cox, H-E-B grocery, IBC bank, Petroplex Energy, Inc., S&B, Dallas billionaire Kenny Troutt, pipeline billionaire Kelcy Warren and Williams Brothers Construction Company, Inc. all made six figure donations, as did the inaugural committee co-chair, businessman Ray Hunt, and co-chair Mindy Hildebrand, a philanthropist.
The chair, banker and Texas Transportation Commission Chair J. Bruce Bugg Jr., donated $10,000, according to the list released by the committee.
Some of the major recipients of the committee’s spending are obvious: The fee for George Strait, one of the best paid country and western entertainers in the nation, can reach $1 million, according to online estimates. Thousands more were likely spent on facility rental fees, expenses for the candlelight dinner at the Fairmont, and printing costs for the gold-embossed inaugural programs.
Records from the Comptroller of Public Accounts indicate more than $11,000 may also have been pumped into an inaugural endowment fund that can be spent on charitable causes or to decorate the Capitol, the governor’s mansion and other historically significant state properties.
Candidates for state office in Texas are banned from taking corporate donations for their electoral campaigns. But donations to the inauguration are not considered to be political contributions under state statute — and the inaugural committee, a unique entity created by the Legislature, is not required to make the kind of campaign finance disclosures politicians must make throughout the year.
There are a few rules, though, and keeping up with how the money gets spent is one of them.
In addition to filing a short financial report, the committee must maintain a record of its expenditures that includes the name of the entity paid, and the amount, date and purpose of the payment, according to state statute.
So far, The Tribune has been unable to get those details.
The Tribune began filing open records requests in August with the secretary of state’s office and with members of the inaugural committee. Though the Tribune specifically asked that the committee not be dissolved before the outstanding requests were fulfilled, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs issued a proclamation to abolish it on Sept. 18.
The Tribune’s lawsuit was filed two days earlier — after repeated efforts to obtain inaugural committee records proved fruitless. The Library and Archives Commission directed a request to the secretary of state’s office and the state comptroller. The comptroller directed the Tribune to the secretary of state. And the secretary of state‘s office told the Tribune that they did not have a record of the inaugural committee’s expenditures. “The statute instructs the committee to maintain those records,” a legal assistant wrote in an email to the Tribune.
Like in Texas, the last presidential inauguration in Washington was organized by a nonprofit committee. But it has received intense scrutiny over reports of lavish spending and allegations that it may have received illegal foreign contributions. A required tax filing the federal committee submitted to the Internal Revenue Service revealed unflattering details about contractors’ pay, including $26 million given to an event planning firm founded by an advisor to First Lady Melania Trump.
“As we have seen in allegations about the Trump inauguration, sometimes there is abuse in the way that money is spent,” said Aleshire, the lawyer. “Disclosure is one way not only to catch such abuses that might have occurred but for the future knowing that the records are going to be disclosed, it discourages bad behavior in the next inaugural committee.”
Disclosure: AT&T, H-E-B, IBC bank, the Texas Sectetary of State and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.