Houston city attorney mulling mayoral candidate complaints about John Whitmire’s campaign finances

Gilbert Garcia and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, in a pair of jointly written letters in recent weeks, claimed Whitmire is potentially violating city campaign finance laws. A campaign spokesperson for Whitmire, who is considered the frontrunner ahead of the Nov. 7 election, said it is in compliance with the law and called the complaints “desperate.”

John Whitmire
State Sen. John Whitmire, the longest-tenured member of the Texas Senate, is running for Houston mayor.

Three weeks before Election Day and six days before the start of early voting in the Houston mayoral race, the city attorney said he continues to look into a pair of complaints submitted by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson and Gilbert Garcia, who have been unable to match Texas Sen. John Whitmire both in polling as well as in campaign fundraising and spending.

Garcia and Jackson Lee, who along with Whitmire are among the 17 mayoral candidates who will be on the Nov. 7 ballot, allege that Whitmire's campaign has potentially violated city ordinances related to campaign financing. In two jointly written letters dated Sept. 28 and Oct. 13, Garcia and Jackson Lee accuse Whitmire's campaign of utilizing too much money from his war chest as a longtime state senator and question the $2.7 million his campaign recently reported in investment gains and interest dividends from stocks purchased and sold by his campaign.

The first letter asked Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel to weigh in on the matter by Oct. 12, but he had yet to do so as of Tuesday.

"We're still looking at it and need to look at it very carefully," Michel said in reference to both complaints. "Anything involving an election is always subject to scrutiny."

Whitmire is considered the frontrunner to succeed the term-limited Sylvester Turner, according to a poll released last week by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, which showed that Jackson Lee is running second in the race and Garcia, a former METRO board chair, is the most favored candidate among the rest of the pack.

Whitmire's campaign also was the most successful fundraiser and biggest spender during the most recent reporting period, between July and September, pulling in more than $1 million in donations during that span while spending nearly $4 million. His campaign also reported having nearly $6.9 million in cash on hand.

Garcia and Jackson Lee claimed in their first letter to the city attorney that, based on previous finance reports filed by Whitmire's campaign, he should be limited to using the $1.7 million or so he has raised since Jan. 1, 2022, which is the beginning of the contribution cycle for the mayoral race. They also allege that Whitmire's campaign previously reported $43,500 in excess contributions, with city laws limiting donations to $5,000 per individual and $10,000 per political action committee during an election cycle.

Gilbert Garcia
Gilbert Garcia is a candidate for Houston mayor.

Garcia, in an interview with Houston Public Media, said the city ordinance could be interpreted as restricting officeholders to a total of $10,000 from non-mayoral campaigns. But Michel said a previous determination made under the administration of former Mayor Annise Parker allows candidates to use up to $5,000 per individual or $10,000 per PAC that were donated to non-mayoral campaigns.

"We'd like (Michel) to opine on it one way or another," Garcia said. "If we are incorrect in our general reading, well, I think then the public is well-served, knowing nothing is wrong. But if we're correct, I think it's important the public knows, because No. 1, it's disadvantaging the other candidates."

Sue Davis, a spokesperson for the Whitmire campaign who previously worked for Turner's mayoral campaigns, dismissed the accusations made by Garcia and Jackson Lee, saying, "We've abided by the law from the very beginning on everything that we've done in this campaign," including with the use of funds generated by stock sales. The Whitmire campaign reported more than $2.7 million in investment returns from July through September, when it sold stock shares in companies such as Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Walmart.

Angelica Luna-Kaufman, a spokesperson for Jackson Lee's campaign, said it is not questioning the use of stock sales to boost campaign finances, which is allowed by the Texas Ethics Commission and not uncommon among political candidates. At issue, Luna-Kaufman said, is whether the sold stocks were originally purchased using contributions to Whitmire's senate campaign or donations to his mayoral campaign.

Luna-Kaufman said the latest report filed by the Whitmire campaign does not specify which is the case.

Sheila Jackson Lee
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, holds a pocket-size copy of The Constitution as she questions Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on Capitol Hill, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 in Washington.

"I think it's about transparency, really," Luna-Kaufman said. "We've worked really hard to maintain that level of transparency and making sure that everybody is playing by the same rules, especially in our case, since we're the two frontrunners, the Congresswoman and Whitmire. We just need to make sure the playing field is equal and transparent."

Garcia left open the possibility of filing a lawsuit over the matter, depending on the determination made by Michel, who said those found to be in violation of the city's campaign finance laws are subject to misdemeanor citations in municipal court. Garcia said the complaints submitted by him and Jackson Lee are in the interest of clarifying city laws and ensuring they are being enforced equally, in addition to providing information that voters can use when they cast their ballots.

Davis chalked up the complaints to political posturing in the run-up to an election.

"They're desperate," she said of Garcia and Jackson Lee. "These are losing candidates who are desperate."