Lumberton PAC fined by ethics commission

Lumberton PAC fined by ethics commission

A committee that helped bring liquor to Lumberton was found to be in violation of Texas Election Code laws at a May 30 meeting of the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) and received a $500 sanction.

It all started when special-purpose political action committee Keep Dollars in Lumberton (KDLC) was formed to circulate a petition to hold a special local option election on Nov. 6, 2012, in an effort to legalize the sale of alcohol in Lumberton.

Months later, KDLC and campaign treasurer Joan Abshire were found to be in violation of sections 253.004, 253.031, and 254.123 of the Texas Election Code. According to the TEC Order and Agreed Resolution, TEC received a complaint alleging KDLC accepted political contributions totaling more than $500 and made or authorized political expenditures totaling more than $500 at a time when a campaign treasurer appointment for the committee was not in effect, which is required in section 253.031 of Texas Election Code.

KDLC also did not file a semi-annual political contributions report in a timely manner, according to the TEC order.

KDLC filed a July 2012 semi-annual political contributions report on Aug. 8, 2012. The report was supposed to have been filed no later than July 15, 2012, the TEC order states.

KDLC’s Aug. 8 report also disclosed that on May 21, 2012, KDLC accepted a $25,000 contribution from Walmart and that KDLC made a $25,000 expenditure for “Petition” to Texas Petition Strategies (TPS). According to its website, TPS is a “leading expert on local option alcohol campaigns in Texas” and “has successfully conducted efforts in over 80 Texas communities” including Vidor and Hardin County and produces “millions of dollars in sales and property tax revenue and economic development for their clients.”

According to the TEC Order, Abshire acknowledged the contribution from Walmart and expenditure to TPS but asserted that the contribution was not accepted until the campaign treasurer appointment was filed June 11, 2012. However, according to the order, credible evidence indicated that the contribution was deposited by TPS “on or around May 21, 2012, and that a decision to accept the money was made at that same time.”

“The evidence indicated before May 21, 2012, (that) KLDC, as a group, intended to make political expenditures and accept political contributions,” the TEC order states. These contributions totaling $25,000 were from Walmart, according to the order.

TPS owner and consultant to KDLC John Hatch said the reason the report was filed late was Abshire’s poor health.

“An error was made. … Unfortunately, due to some health issues with Ms. Abshire, the report was filed late,” Hatch said. “That petition effort was supposed to have started about two or three weeks earlier, but due to other efforts going in around the state, we were delayed in getting it started. Some dates were out of order, but all of it got reported as required by law.”

Walmart, which Hatch said was only one of several contributors but is the only business listed on the TEC order, is located within 300 feet of Lumberton High School and was originally not able to sell alcohol because of Lumberton City ordinance No. 09-1180. The ordinance states, “the sale of alcoholic beverages within 300 feet of a public or private school is hereby prohibited” which originally excluded Walmart at 100 N LHS Drive from selling alcohol because of its close vicinity to Lumberton High School, at 103 S. LHS Drive.

However, on Feb. 11, 2013, Lumberton City Council voted 5-2 to allow a variance for Walmart, which would allow them to sell alcohol. The motion was made by Councilman and Chamber of Commerce President Andy Kelley and seconded by Councilman Don Burnett.

Kelley said that although he knew about the $25,000 contribution from Walmart, he was not a member of KDLC and had no knowledge of the late filing of KDLC’s political contributions report.

“It wasn’t my committee to be worried about,” Kelley said. “I don’t know what the time frame was, how it was paid or any of that.”

Kelley did say that he told Hatch that after past petitions to legalize the sale of alcohol in Lumberton failed, he planned to get behind the petition in 2012.

“I made the comment that, as president of the Chamber, I should have gotten behind that and if it ever comes up again, I will get behind it,” Kelley said. “Because as a Chamber, it would be promoting business and economic growth. That’s the only reason I got behind it. That’s what a chamber president is supposed to do.”

Kelley said Hatch then asked him if he could use his name as a center of influence for the petition. Kelley agreed.

Kelley said that he allowed Hatch to print a flyer with a photo of Kelley and comments supporting the petition, but that “Neither Don (Burnett) or I had anything to do with the (KDLC) committee. It is not my committee,” Kelley said.

Kelley explained why he and other council members voted in favor of allowing a variance to Walmart to allow them to sell alcohol within 300 feet of Lumberton High School at the Feb. 11 council meeting.

“Nobody on the council took it lightly,” Kelley said. “Walmart’s property line is closer to the school than anybody, but front door to front door, they are a lot further away than CVS pharmacy, Jack’s Pak-It and the Chinese restaurant. Because these (three businesses) are leasing, they don’t have to ask for a variance; they can just go and start selling the alcohol. We just thought, ‘Why would we not allow Walmart to sell it when these businesses don’t even have to ask for a variance?’”

Lumberton ordinance No. 09-1180, which addresses the variance that allows exceptions in alcohol sales within 300 feet, states that “Upon receipt of a variance request, the city council may consider and grant an exception to reduce the distance requirements … if the council determines that enforcement of the distance requirements in a particular instance is not in the best interest of the public, constitutes waste or inefficient use of land or other resources, creates an undue hardship on an applicant for a permit, does not serve its intended purpose, is not effective or necessary, or for any other reason the council, after consideration of the health, safety and welfare of the public and the equities of the situation, determines is in the best interest of the city.”

According to TPS, funds received by contributors are only used for gathering signatures for petitions to get an item on a voting ballot or for campaign support such as direct mail, robocalls, and ads.

Bryan Poss of Texas Petition Strategies said that campaign contributions of $25,000 or more aren't uncommon.

“If you go look at other similar towns of similar sizes around the state, you’ll find that large retailers, whether they be Kroger or Brookshire or Walmart, they’ll write a $25,000 check pretty easily,” Poss said.

Hatch said that KDLC’s violations were minor.

“They (TEC) gave a nominal $500 fee, which is the basic fee they do anytime any minor violation has been alleged. It was a minor infraction, they (TEC) fined, and we paid the fine,” he said.

A response via an e-mail inquiry regarding the $25,000 contribution was not received from Walmart as of press time.