SAN ANTONIO - State Representative John Garza, who is fighting to win another term in Austin, has some explaining to do about the way he's spending campaign funds. Those questionable expenditures include an expensive holiday dinner with his family and paying his wife to work on his campaign.
Garza is the freshman representative in District 117, which runs from Helotes to far western Bexar County to the Southwest Side. He’s locked in a bitter battle with Democratic challenger Philip Cortez’s, a former San Antonio city councilman.
“I thank you very much Brian. God bless you. You're a great person,” said a sarcastic Garza when I caught up with him outside a political event last week.
I tracked him down because he would not answer questions about his campaign expenses listed on his campaign finance report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. Garza’s listed expenses include a $900 dinner held last Christmas Eve at an expensive steak restaurant.
The campaign report says it was a "meeting to discuss officer-holder and campaign issues."
“I told you that we had a campaign event, a Christmas party. We had some supporters. Some long time supporters,” responded Garza when questioned about the expense.
But when I pressed Garza, he admitted those long time supporters are actually his family members, and apparently the holiday meal is somewhat of a Garza holiday tradition. His son posted a picture on Facebook of the entire Garza family at the same fancy restaurant the night before Christmas back in 2010. That meal was not charged to the campaign, but the dinner this past year was put on the campaign’s tab. State law says campaign funds, made up of contributions from supporters, cannot be used for personal expenses.
Garza: “We have family events, and we have campaign events.”
Brian: “But this was supposed to be a campaign event."
Garza: “I didn't say that Brian.”
But he did say it was a campaign event, and later explained in a phone call that his family members are his “biggest supporters” and have worked on his campaign. He also claimed other supporters were there for just drinks, but declined to name them or release a copy of the meal receipt.
But there’s another campaign expense that Garza refuses to discuss that could have more serious consequences. Garza also paid his wife Debra, who is his campaign treasurer, $4,000 on December 29, 2011 for what he lists as "contract labor for campaign services."
“The law is clearly designed to prohibit from using political funds to personally enrich himself or his family,” says attorney Ross Fischer, a former chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission which regulates state official's campaign laws. “The statute is clear that an office holder can't use political funds to pay his wife to do campaign work.”
So what kind of work did the representative pay his wife to do on his re-election campaign? He won't tell us.
The reason may be revealed in an email. One of the representative’s advisors, his former chief of staff and current mayor of Von Ormy, attorney Art Martinez accidentally copied me on an email about how the campaign should respond to my questions.
Martinez advised Garza: "The less we give him, the less he has to work with to make a story."
“I told you Brian, that if there are any discrepancies on our campaign report that we will correct them,” said Garza as he left his political event.
The representative claims he's going to pay back his campaign for the $900 meal, but no word on whether her will refund the money he paid his wife.