Go West

With Dallas Democrats' return from the dead, state Senator Royce West is poised for bigger things, like maybe paychecks

West's arrangement raises all sorts of tricky questions, including whether he is using campaign funds to build equity in commercial real estate. A more simple issue is this: Do the average donors know the money they contribute to West's campaign may be going directly to West's business?

The Texas Ethics Commission has a very broad interpretation of what constitutes a campaign expense, but it gets a little fussy when a candidate uses donations to pay for property. Good government watchdogs think, though, that West's self-governed arrangement smells bad.

"The overriding rule is that you can't use campaign funds on personal real estate," says Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice, a political watchdog group. "When candidates use their campaign funds to pay for their own real estate holdings—or the holdings of their family—it raises serious questions of propriety."

Royce West
Illustration by Jason Seiler
Royce West
Royce West is the political man of the hour, thanks to the Democrats' surprising November sweep.
Mark Graham
Royce West is the political man of the hour, thanks to the Democrats' surprising November sweep.

Lewis is just as circumspect. "I'm not trying to pick on Senator West, but the question is: Should campaign contributions be used to make payments to an entity that is controlled by the candidate?"

It's worth pointing out that while West paid himself $18,000 in rent last year, he was not up for re-election. In his last election, in 2004, West did not have an opponent. Like many legislators in comfortable seats, West uses his campaign war chest to fund other candidates and donate to their local party, allowing them to play kingmaker in their districts. Last year, West was a leading donor to the Dallas County Democratic Party.

"This is just the way we allow it to be done in Austin, and it is so crazy," Lewis says. "Senator West acts no differently than anyone else. We have met the enemy and it is us."

West has also drawn the ire of environmentalists for the amount of campaign cash he's taken from TXU, the utility giant that recently scrapped its plans to build 11 coal-burning plants. As Mayor Laura Miller and Houston Mayor Bill White led the fight against the utility's ambitions, citing the noxious level of air pollution that would result, West largely stood on the sidelines.

In the 2006 election cycle, West received $16,000 from TXU executives and political action committees, according to Texans for Public Justice. That ranked West the fifth-largest recipient of TXU's bounty and the top Democratic beneficiary. TXU also contributed $200,000 to the University of North Texas campus in southern Dallas.

It's always tenuous to correlate campaign donations with legislative behavior, and TXU is in West's district. West says that he would have opposed the utility's plans to build 11 coal-fired power plants if it came before the Legislature, and he has criticized the utility for its high electric rates. He says that the utility donates money to his campaign merely to ensure access.

But environmentalists who have long counted on West as an ally say they're beginning to lose faith in him. Four years ago, he backed legislation that allowed for the development of a nuclear waste dump in West Texas after having received $2,000 in campaign contributions from the Dallas owner.

"For me, when that nuclear waste dump happened, it waved a red flag with me," says Rita Beving, the conservation co-chair of Dallas Sierra Club, who has known West for more than 15 years. "I don't want to think that of Royce West, but I'm very concerned. I see the environmental community as having a lot less access to him."

Interestingly, West's son, Royce West Jr., informally lobbied on behalf of TXU earlier this year. Jim Presley, a Texarkana physician and environmentalist, told Beving that he received a phone call from West Jr. recently, saying that he was "working for cleaner air in Northeast Texas." He then asked the physician if he'd be interested in writing up to 12 letters supporting these "improved power plants." The physician asked West Jr. if he was working for TXU, and he said yes.

Like many environmentalists, Beving is not short on indignation. When she heard from the Texarkana physician, she called West's office immediately. A staffer told her that West had a conversation with his son, and "he will no longer be working for the company."

If West runs for statewide office in four years—a possibility he acknowledges—what will be a lot thornier for West is the role he played in the demise of the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District. At the time the state closed it down in 2005, the district had the worst test scores in Texas and was rated by the state as academically unacceptable, the lowest possible designation. Wilmer-Hutchins also had trouble meeting payroll and was plagued by allegations of corruption. One of its superintendents, Charles Matthews, was indicted twice.

In 2002, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander (now Strayhorn) released an audit of Wilmer-Hutchins that detailed $7.3 million in savings for the financially struggling district. It also criticized the work of the district's delinquent tax attorney, West, in part for failing to collect more than $3 million in property taxes. Shortly after the release of the audit, the Wilmer-Hutchins board voted against giving West a contract. (Apparently, West was operating without one at the time.)

After the vote, the trustees went into private session. Trustee Ann Walker, who voted against giving West the contract, went to take a smoke break. On her way out she saw the state senator. He didn't look happy.

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