City officials under scrutiny

The Texas Ethics Commission has begun an investigation into a complaint by a local resident that a trio of Big Spring City Council members accepted illegal campaign donations while running for municipal office.According to reports filed with TEC, complaints have been filed against Mayor Tommy Duncan, District 1 Councilman Marcus Fernandez and District 3 Councilman Glen Carrigan by local resident Joyce Crooker.“The complaint meets the technical form requirements for the complaint filed with the Texas Ethics Commission and the executive director (David A. Reisman) has determined the Ethics Commission has jurisdiction over the matter alleged in the sworn complaint,” reads the letter sent to Crooker and all three council members. “The complaint alleges that you knowingly accepted political contributions from a corporation or labor organization, which is prohibited by Sections 253.003 and 253.094 of the Election Code.“The sworn complaint allegations will be processed as Category 2 violations. Under the law, you are required to respond to the allegations no later than 25 business days from the date that you receive this notice. Failure to respond will constitute a separate violation for which a separate civil penalty may be assessed.”Under the Texas Ethics Commission Title 15 Election Code, candidates seeking to hold office are not allowed to accept campaign contributions from corporations.According to the campaign report submitted by Duncan, he accepted a $300 political contribution from Hydro Dynamics Inc. and a $500 political contribution from Quad A Inc. during his bid for mayor in 2010.Similar campaign finance reports filed with the city's secretary during the 2011 municipal elections show Fernandez accepted a donation of $1,000 from Quad A Inc. and a $200 donation from Hydro Dynamics, while Carrigan reported receiving $1,000 from Quad A Inc. and $400 from Hydro Dymanics.Duncan confirmed he had received the notification from TEC a complaint had been filed against him.“I have sent in my response to TEC and now I'm just waiting for them to get back to me,” Duncan said.Duncan refused to provide the Herald with a copy of his response letter and could not remember the date — or estimate the date — he submitted it to TEC. He also refused to comment on whether or not his response denied or confirmed the allegations against him.Criminal charges for the same allegations — reported to the Texas Rangers by officials with the Big Spring Herald in 2011 after investigative reports by the newspaper uncovered that all three had accepted campaign contributions — were no-billed by a Howard County grand jury in October.All three politicians maintained they were not aware it was illegal to take the campaign contributions at the times they accepted them, a point District Attorney Hardy Wilkerson said was key in the criminal investigation.“The grand jury agreed that all three men were unaware,” Wilkerson said following the grand jury's decision.According to Crooker, she filed the complaint with TEC because she feels public servants should be held to a high standard when it comes to following the letter of the law.“My husband (former Howard County commissioner Bill Crooker) was a politician for 40 years, and during that time he abided by the rules and regulations set by the state,” Crooker said. “When the grand jury failed to hold these three men accountable for their actions, I felt like someone needed to. That's why I filed the complaint with TEC.“Our politicians — local, state and beyond — must be held accountable for their actions. When they sign a document saying they understand the law, then turn around and break that very law they need to be held responsible. If they are going to serve as elected officials and expect the community to trust in them, how can they turn around and plead ignorant to the very law they pledged their name they understood and would follow?”Repeated attempts to reach both Carrigan and Fernandez were unsuccessful and voice messages were not returned before this report went to press.According to Tim Sorrells, deputy general counsel for TEC, all three men could face a fine ranging from zero to $5,000 to three times the amount in question if found liable by the state commission.When filing for an elected position, candidates for Big Spring City Council, including the office of mayor, are required to fill out and sign various forms, one of which details appointment of a campaign treasurer.That document includes the statement “I am aware of the restrictions in title 15 of the Election Code on contributions from corporations and labor organizations.” All three men signed the affidavits saying they understood the state law governing campaign contributions.All three local politicians could face stiff fines from TEC if the allegations are confirmed, however, they aren't likely to find themselves out of the civil arena there, as former longtime District 1 Councilwoman Stephanie Horton and former District 3 Councilwoman Joann Staulcup have filed a lawsuit against Fernandez and Carrigan.According to Sec. 253.131 of the Election Code, candidates challenged during the election by a person who accepts an illegal campaign contribution could be awarded civil damages to the tune of “twice the value of the unlawful contribution,” as well as “reasonable attorneys fees incurred in the suit.”The civil suit could cost Fernandez $2,400 — payable to Horton, who was unseated in the election — and a total of $2,800 from Carrigan, who would have to pay the amount to Staulcup and challengers Shannon Thomason and Oscar Velasco, for a total of $8,400.Midland attorney C.H. “Hal” Brockett is representing Staulcup and Horton in the legal action.