State Sen. John Whitmire’s mayoral campaign filed notice Wednesday that it has refunded $5,000 in donations from a police labor group, making him one of several candidates in the race to acknowledge violating Houston’s contribution cap.
Whitmire’s refund, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, came a day after U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s campaign acknowledged that at least 10 of its donations totaling more than $60,000 had violated the city’s cap. Jackson Lee’s campaign finance filing also suggests she may have violated state law by accepting $12,000 in corporate contributions.
Meanwhile, lawyer Lee Kaplan’s campaign said it would refund a contribution narrowly over the cap, and took a swipe at Whitmire for transferring millions of dollars from his uncapped legislative campaign account.
The swirl of refunds and revelations amounted to a messy moment in the fundraising race ahead of the Nov. 7 election. So far, a quartet of mayoral candidates has collected more than $1 million each in contributions.
Whitmire reported earlier this week that he had $9.9 million in cash on hand, the vast bulk from his previous runs for state Senate, where he has served for more than four decades.
Over the past year, he collected $15,000 from the Houston Police Officers’ Union political action committee, putting him $5,000 over the limit for such organizations. In the Wednesday filing, his campaign said it refunded the excess.
Jackson Lee’s campaign also has said that it will refund tens of thousands of dollars in donations from donors who exceeded the city cap.
Separately, her finance report showed her campaign took $12,000 in total from four corporations. Those donations could run afoul of a Texas Election Code ban on corporate contributions.
A state campaign finance watchdog said the law is straightforward.
“Generally speaking, contributions from corporations are prohibited in Texas,” Jim Tinley, general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission, said. “If there’s an ‘Inc.,’ it’s pretty safe to assume that that business cannot contribute to candidates.”
Three businesses clearly were identified as corporations in Jackson Lee’s campaign finance report, while a fourth was listed as a corporation in the Texas Secretary of State database.
In a statement sent to the Houston Landing Thursday evening, Jackson Lee’s campaign manager did not address the corporate donations directly, but he said the campaign was in the process of refunding donations when necessary.
“The recent errors were staff driven and have been immediately addressed with new safeguards,” campaign manager James Sonneman said. “Clearly we believe, one it is important to be transparent, and two it is important to abide by the law. This campaign will do both. As has been reported, it is clear other campaigns are currently going through the same situation. Needless to say, we will stand ready to answer any and all questions.”
Separately, Kaplan’s campaign has acknowledged that a single donation exceeded the $5,000 per person cap by $162.70 and said the excess would be refunded.
Kaplan took a swipe at Whitmire for transferring millions of dollars from his legislative campaign account. Only Houston races come with contribution limits, and critics say Whitmire is trying to make an end-run around the city’s ethics code.
“Sen. Whitmire’s evasion of our city’s campaign finance laws is an act of political deception,” Kaplan said in a statement. “The city of Houston doesn’t need a mayor who plays cheap political tricks to skirt our laws and is beholden to special interests.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner faced a lawsuit when he transferred funds from his legislative to mayoral campaign account in 2015, but the case was dropped before a judge ruled on the maneuver’s legality.
Whitmire’s campaign has defended the transfer as legal.
The only way to test that assertion could be through a lawsuit, which Kaplan has not committed to filing. “We intend to focus on our own campaign,” said Jennie Johnson, Kaplan’s campaign manager.
Editor’s note: The story has been updated with a statement from the Jackson Lee campaign sent Thursday evening.