The dominant political party in western Hidalgo County spent nearly $69,000 last year without filing a single campaign finance report.
Team L1berty created a political action committee called the “Liberty Executive Committee,” which spent thousands supporting candidates in Sullivan City and La Joya.
“It’s a new PAC and we were unaware that we had any other requirements about reporting to the state,” said Peñitas Chief of Staff Andy Morales, who serves as treasurer for the Liberty Executive Committee, in a statement. “We are looking into the requirements of supporting local elections and will make the necessary reports in the future.”
The Liberty Executive Committee also failed to file campaign finance reports for the March 2018 Democratic Party primary and the May 2018 Agua Special Utility District election.
It wasn’t until April 19 — after the Texas Ethics Commission threatened to refer the Liberty Executive Committee to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for noncompliance — that the political action committee filed an annual campaign finance report.
However, that report didn’t include all donations and spending.
The Liberty Executive Committee attempted to file the annual report by fax, but the Ethics Commission requires political action committees with more than $20,000 in donations to file electronically.
After the Ethics Commission rejected the fax, the Liberty Executive Committee attempted to file the report electronically. That created another problem: the computer system wouldn’t allow the Liberty Executive Committee to report transactions before a campaign treasurer had been appointed.
The Liberty Executive Committee filed the incomplete report anyway.
The Progress Times obtained copies of the original report and the electronic report from the Ethics Commission.
Members of Team L1berty plan to discuss the filing requirements and how to correct the problems at an upcoming meeting.
“I don’t think there were any bad intentions on our part, to be honest with you,” said school board Trustee Johnn Alaniz. “I think it was just an oversight.”
Morales filed an appointment of campaign treasurer form with the Texas Ethics Commission on July 27, 2017, listing himself as treasurer.
The document also lists Morales, Alaniz and La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas as members of the decision-making committee, which controls donations and spending.
None of them had ever managed a political action committee before, Alaniz said, adding that they weren’t aware of all the deadlines and requirements.
The Ethics Commission accepted the campaign treasurer appointment, registering the Liberty Executive Committee as a general-purpose political action committee.
With a campaign treasurer, the political action committee could legally accept donations and spend money. The Liberty Executive Committee, however, hadn’t waited for permission.
Donors had already forked over $43,000, according to Ethics Commission records. The haul included checks from a fundraiser at Hacienda La Encantada, an event venue northwest of Mission, on March 13.
Major contributors included Amarillo-based law firm Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins and Mott, which collects delinquent property taxes; engineer Richard LeFevre, who later became the interim general manager of the Agua Special Utility District; and state Rep. Oscar Longoria, an attorney who handled legal work for Peñitas.
The Liberty Executive Committee spent the money quickly.
Nearly $16,300 paid down campaign debt for La Joya school board Trustee Alex Cantu. Another $5,000 went to La Joya school board President Oscar “Coach” Salinas, who provided consulting services during the May 2017 campaign in Sullivan City. And Sullivan City Mayor Leo Garcia received nearly $13,700.
After blowing through the money, the Liberty Executive Committee borrowed from the La Joya Area Federal Credit Union, where Alaniz serves as CEO.
On April 26, 2017, the Liberty Executive Committee borrowed $10,000 at 5 percent interest, according to Ethics Commission records. The political action committee borrowed another $10,000 on Sept. 23.
Records filed with the Ethics Commission don’t list any collateral or guarantor. Alaniz said he didn’t know whether the records filed with the Ethics Commission were accurate.
Garcia, who won the mayoral election in Sullivan City, disclosed the donations on campaign finance reports, according to documents filed with the Sullivan City Secretary’s Office. The Liberty Executive Committee, which hadn’t appointed a campaign treasurer yet, didn’t file any campaign finance reports during the Sullivan City race.
After the Sullivan City election, the Liberty Executive Committee appointed a campaign treasurer and shifted focus to La Joya.
The political action committee donated nearly $9,600 to La Joya City Commissioner Mary Salinas, according to Ethics Commission records.
Incomplete campaign finance reports filed by her husband — Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas — don’t disclose the donations. Her opponent didn’t bother to file any campaign finance reports at all.
Neither did the Liberty Executive Committee.
Texas law allows the Ethics Commission to assess a $500 civil penalty for candidates or political action committees that don’t file a campaign finance report by the deadline. In some cases, the law allows an additional $100 fine every day the report is late.
“The fines can be pretty hefty for these pre-election reports,” said Houston-based attorney Jerad Najvar, an expert on Texas election law.
Historically, the Ethics Commission only investigated when someone filed a complaint, Najvar said. During the past few years, though, the Ethics Commission started making statements about more proactive enforcement.
Determining when an organization or association becomes a political action committee depends on several factors, including donor intent and the pitch by the person receiving the money, Najvar said.
Failing to file a campaign finance report after appointing a treasurer is more clear-cut.
“It sounds like an obvious violation,” Najvar said. “And they should know they should file those reports.”