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All eyes are on South Texas this election season as Texas Republicans try to make new inroads there. The heightened attention has brought to light a concerning campaign issue, according to a GOP group: a lack of publicly available campaign finance reports in Starr County documenting donations and spending for its local elections.
Under state law, counties are required to keep these reports for candidates running for local office, including races for county judge, county commissioner, and justice of the peace. But that apparently isn’t happening in Starr, one of four counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley, according to an ethics complaint recently filed by a GOP group.
The group, Project Red TX, is working to overthrow Democratic County Judge Eloy Vera and has filed public records requests asking for his latest campaign finance reports. However, the county said in response to the group that it “does not currently keep” reports.
The county did not respond to a request for comment, but Project Red TX provided documentation of its correspondence to the Texas Tribune.
The situation raises a host of questions, including whether the candidates are filing reports and whether the county has ever maintained the reports to begin with. Vera did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
The push to defeat Vera comes as Republicans race to capture new territory in the ballot this fall in South Texas. Project Red TX recruited dozens of candidates for local offices in the area, often paying their application fees, and one of those candidates was Vera’s challenger, Maria Yvette Hernandez.
The Texas Election Code states that any candidate for county office must file a campaign treasurer nomination with the county clerk to officially establish their candidacy. They must then file regular reports with the county detailing their campaign finances, including their donors and expenses. Candidates for state and statewide legislative office must file their reports with the Texas Ethics Commission in Austin.
Project Red TX executive director Wayne Hamilton filed the ethics complaint earlier this month against Vera, alleging the county judge is “actively campaigning” for re-election despite not meeting any of those requirements. . Hamilton also requested the same reports for other local elected officials – like county commissioners and justices of the peace – and got the same response from the county saying there were no reactive documents.
Armandina Martinez, Starr County’s election administrator, told Hamilton the county was “unable to quickly produce the requested records as we are not currently maintaining them” for candidates and office holders for 2022 or previous years to present.
Martinez recommended Hamilton contact the county Democratic party chairman for reports. However, party chairs have no role in maintaining reports under the law.
Vera did not respond to requests for comment on the complaint, which the Texas Ethics Commission accepted on Thursday. Vera has 10 business days to respond to the allegations.
Campaign finance experts say there is little ambiguity in the law on this issue.
“The statute designates for county races the county clerk as the local filing authority. In some cases, these functions as a local filing authority are transferred to the election administrator,” said Ross Fischer, former Texas Ethics Commissioner. “One of these offices must serve as the local filing authority. There must be a repository.
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