The Texas Ethics Commission issues advisory opinions under the authority of Subchapter D, Chapter 571, Government Code. The Commission recently issued Advisory Opinion 484, re-interpreting the restrictions on accepting transportation, meals, and lodging by an elected officeholder from a corporation or labor organization.
Corporations, including non-profit corporations, are generally prohibited from making a political contribution or political expenditure. See Section 253.094, Election Code. Making or accepting a contribution in violation of this prohibition is a felony of the third degree. See Section 253.003, Election Code.
Advisory Opinion 484 addresses the common practice of accepting transportation, meals, or lodging by an officeholder from a corporation or labor organization in return for addressing an audience or participating in a seminar. Previously, such activities and expenses were not considered a contribution because they are not “incurred by the officeholder in performing a duty or engaging in an activity in connection with the office…” See Section 251.001(5), Election Code. Advisory Opinion 484 sweeps that argument aside and concludes (without explanation or precedent) that “performing those services is a duty or activity in connection with the office.” The Ethics Commission then concluded that “the provision of transportation, meals, and lodging to an officeholder to facilitate the officeholder’s attendance at the event would constitute an officeholder contribution if the expenses are not reimbursable with public money.” In summary, the Commission held “an elected officeholder may not accept transportation, meals, and lodging from a corporation or labor organization in return for addressing an audience or participating in a seminar if the officeholder’s services are in connection with his or her duties or activities as an officeholder.”
This circular reasoning will surely lead to some absurd results. For example, if a county judge or county commissioner is invited to address the annual chamber banquet and receive an award as Person of the Year, the judge or commissioner may attend the event, address the audience, and accept the award. However, both the chamber (a non-profit corporation) and the officeholder will commit a felony if the officeholder eats the meal.
The Ethics Commission apparently recognized that this Opinion is a drastic departure from prior interpretations of the statutes and graciously stated “this advisory opinion is intended to provide guidance for future activity and not intended to criminalize past activity.” However, that will provide little comfort to someone who is indicted for speaking at a local civic event and consuming a plate of barbeque. Until this Opinion is withdrawn, revised, or overruled by the Attorney General, county judges and county commissioners should seek the written approval of the local county attorney before accepting transportation, meals, or lodging from any corporation, including local non-profit civic and charitable corporations.
For more information, please call me at 1-800-733-0699
James P. Allison
County Judges & Commissioners Association of Texas
402 W. 12th Street
Austin, Texas 78701
(800) 733-0699- toll free
(512) 482-0701 – office
(512) 480-0902 – fax