It's sort of funny just how misleading some newspaper and magazine headlines can be, and this weekend's proclamation of “Grand jury clears council members” is no exception.
As most have already heard, a Howard County grand jury voted Friday to no-bill — a fancy way of saying they decided not to indict — a trio of Big Spring City Council members recently investigated on charges of accepting illegal campaign contributions. Complaints were filed against all three council members by the Big Spring Herald earlier this year after investigative reports by the newspaper uncovered that all three had accepted campaign contributions — Mayor Tommy Duncan during his 2010 bid for mayor and Glen Carrigan and Marcus Fernandez during their May bids for seats on the council — from a pair of Crossroads corporations.
The complaints, which were originally sworn out by Publisher Ron Midkiff, Managing Editor Bill McClellan and myself on behalf of the newspaper, alleged Duncan accepted a $300 political contribution from Hydro Dynamics Inc. and a $500 political contribution from Quad A Inc.; Fernandez accepted a donation of $1,000 from Quad A Inc. and a $200 donation from Hydro Dynamics; and Carrigan received $1,000 from Quad A Inc. and $400 from Hydro Dymanics.
I suppose it's the reporter in me that uses the word “alleged,” as all three men openly admitted receiving the contributions. Those points have never been contested. The real question at the heart of the felony investigation has always been whether or not the three men were aware they were breaking the law.
The decision for the newspaper to file the complaint was a tough one. Normally, we would simply wait for someone else to take the information we had uncovered and file a complaint on the matter, covering the situation much like we would cover any such case. However — for whatever reasons — hands within the community stalled and it became clear it was time for the Herald to step up in what management considered a much-needed show of accountability.
Also, when that decision was made, a second decision to completely refrain from editorial or opinion-type comment on the matter was adopted by the staff. However, now that the issue has made its way through the legal system and, at least for the most part, reached a conclusion, it is time for the self-imposed silence to end.
I'll be the first to admit, when you compare these political transgressions — totaling just a few thousand dollars — to the millions of dollars shuffled around our nation's capital, it's easy to get lost in the overall difference. It may even be, for some, easy to just let go and encourage others to move on. However, it's hard for me to let go of one basic fact, and that is all three men did — without a doubt — break the law.
Under the Texas Ethics Commission Title 15 Election Code, candidates seeking to hold office are not allowed to accept campaign contributions from corporations. When filing for an elected position, candidates for Big Spring City Council are required to fill out and sign various forms, including a document which states “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 and that all three understood it is illegal to accept campaign contributions.
Both Carrigan and Fernandez insisted they were unaware it was illegal to receive campaign contributions from a corporation at the time the funds were accepted. “No, I wasn't aware it was illegal,” Carrigan told the Herald. In his comments to the Herald, Duncan said only that he wasn't aware the funds were coming from corporations. “I did not realize those checks were coming from corporations,” he said in a May interview.
I find this claim somewhat frightening, since the checks were logged into Duncan's finance report complete with the “inc.” moniker, indicating he either didn't know the abbreviation stood for “incorporated” or didn't notice ... as he wrote them down. It is, for lack of a better term, the ignorance defense. And, as most of us have been told our entire adult lives, ignorance of the law does not exempt you from it. If you don't believe that, try walking out of a local retailer with an armload of their merchandise, and when the officers show up to arrest you for shoplifting, simply tell them, “I didn't know it was illegal to take these things without paying for them.”
Something tells me the grand jury in your case might not be quite as forgiving as the jury that examined the evidence in this one.
So, we have two currently seated council members saying (I'm paraphrasing, not making a direct quote), “I didn't know I couldn't accept campaign finance from corporations, although I previously signed a document to the exact contrary,” and a mayor saying, “I didn't know those checks written by Hydro Dynamics Inc. and Quad A Inc. — despite the repeated use of the 'inc.' moniker — came from corporations.”
We, the residents and taxpayers of the Crossroads area, are that dumb in your eyes? And, even if just for a moment you're considering letting the issue of campaign finance fly on what I like to think of as the “duh defense,” ask yourself this: Shouldn't our city's local officials be held to a higher standard? Shouldn't the men and women who are responsible for spending millions and millions of dollars in our taxpayer money be allowed to fall back on the “duh defense,” ever?
Sure, they are human and they are going to make mistakes. However, should we be willing — and ready — to overlook “mistakes” of this magnitude? When do situations like these stop being “accidents” and start being, well, criminal behavior?
In the end, it all comes down to one indelible truth: these politicians got caught with their hands in the campaign finance cookie jar, and, like so many others in similar situations, got a pass from our criminal justice system.
Any way you look at it, however, these men have proven themselves unfit to serve on the city council — at least in any capacity that involves reading, understanding and acting within our state's laws, which, I'm afraid, is the whole purpose of the government panel.
I believe all three are good men. That's a determination I came to some time back after spending time discussing local politics with them. However, I also believe all three are unsuitable to hold their positions on the city council. That determination, I'm afraid, comes at the hands of the “duh defense.”
I believe all three should step down from their respective offices and take responsibility for their actions. At the very least, I hope they will apply a lot more diligence — both ethically and as a matter of, dare I say, common sense — to their work with municipal funds. While the criminal side of this tale has been told, the ethical and moral side has only just begun.
Contact Staff Writer Thomas Jenkins at 263-7331 ext. 232 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org