The dominant political party in western Hidalgo County missed the state deadline to file campaign finance reports on Monday.
Members of Team L1berty created a general-purpose political action committee called the Liberty Executive Committee last year.
Candidates paid the PAC at least $15,000 for polling and campaign workers during the Democratic Party primary. The PAC also spent at least $680 supporting candidates during the Agua Special Utility District election.
The Liberty Executive Committee didn’t file any campaign finance reports during the primary or the utility district election — and missed another deadline Monday, when the PAC failed to file a semi-annual report.
“A lot of people at the local level just blow it off,” said Austin-based attorney Fred Lewis, a longtime critic of the Texas Ethics Commission and an expert on election law. “And the problem is you have no idea what’s going on. Who’s behind it? Who’s funding it? Is there corruption? You don’t know.”
Peñitas Chief of Staff Andy Morales, La Joya school board Trustee Johnn Alaniz and La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas control the PAC, according to Ethics Commission records.
Morales didn’t respond to requests for comment. Alaniz said he’s no longer involved. And Mayor Salinas said he’s still the committee chairman, but referred questions about the campaign finance reports to Morales.
“Usually, when it comes to local violations, the Ethics Commission isn’t going to do anything unless someone files a complaint,” Lewis said. “It’s not proactive. It’s reactive.”
Team L1berty created the PAC in July 2017, when the organization filed an appointment of campaign treasurer form with the Ethics Commission.
The PAC, however, had already donated nearly $13,700 to Sullivan City Mayor Leo Garcia during the May 2017 election cycle.
Garcia reported the donations. The PAC didn’t.
During the November 2017 election cycle, the PAC donated nearly $9,600 to Mayor Salinas’ wife, La Joya City Commissioner Mary Salinas.
She filed incomplete campaign finance reports, which don’t disclose individual donations. The PAC didn’t disclose anything at all.
After a warning from the Ethics Commission, the PAC filed an annual campaign finance report in April 2018 — three months late.
That report, though, didn’t include $44,000 in donations and more than $52,000 in spending.
During a prior interview, Morales said the Ethics Commission computer system wouldn’t allow him to report donations and spending before the PAC appointed a campaign treasurer. The PAC submitted a paper copy of the campaign finance report, which included all donations and expenses, as an exhibit when Morales asked the Ethics Commission not to penalize him for filing late.
The Ethics Commission, apparently unconcerned by discrepancy, accepted the incomplete report.
“Enforcement is very sketchy over there because it’s almost all complaint-driven,” said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based watchdog organization.
The Ethics Commission dutifully files documents but rarely takes the initiative to investigate whether or not they’re accurate.
“They’re usually a better librarian than a cop,” McDonald said.
The Liberty Executive Committee also failed to file campaign finance reports during the March 2018 Democratic Party primary and the May 2018 Agua Special Utility District election.
Norma Ramirez, who ran for Democratic Party chairwoman, donated $5,000 to “Team Liberty Executive” on Jan. 26, according to her campaign finance report, which describes the payment as a polling expense.
The address for “Team Liberty Executive” on Ramirez’s campaign finance report matches the address on Liberty Executive Committee records.
La Joya school board Trustee J.J. Peña, who ran for justice of the peace, donated $10,000 to “L1berty,” according to his campaign finance report. Peña made a $5,000 payment on Jan. 30 and another $5,000 payment on Feb. 13.
Both payments went to the PAC, but Peña said he couldn’t remember who collected the checks.
The PAC didn’t file any campaign finance reports during the primary.
During the May 2018 election cycle, four candidates for the Agua Special Utility District board reported $170 donations from the PAC for “meals,” according to their campaign finance reports. The PAC didn’t disclose the donations.
Monday marked the deadline for PACs to file semi-annual reports with the Ethics Commission.
“Even if a political committee accepts no contributions and makes no expenditures during the reporting period for a semiannual report, the campaign treasurer is still required to file a contribution and expenditure report to cover that period,” according to the Ethics Commission guide for PACs.
The Liberty Executive Committee missed that deadline too.
“What really needs to happen,” Lewis said. “Is somebody needs to file a complaint with the Ethics Commission.”