Why are Friday political meals secretive?

October 16, 2008 4:36:55 AM PDT
We have a hidden camera investigation that has the elected county attorney on the defensive. Stafford can legally use campaign funds to help run his office, but wait till you see the bills.

In one year the Mike Stafford spent more campaign money than he took in. But his staff ate well.

"I rarely see as high a percentage of campaign contributions being used for meals as on this campaign report," said campaign finance expert Fred Lewis.

But ask Mike Stafford for details on who he ate with on campaign cash and this is what you get.

"The election is 30 days out and I am not going to talk about anything that would disclose the strategy we want to employ over the next 30 days," he told us.

But these aren't listed as campaign meals, they are listed as staff meals and entertainment. Public officials can use campaign money that way.

"That means I'm having dinner with members of the staff and we're there for the purpose of discussing the office," Stafford said.

Look at the bill from a Friday night at Rainbow Lodge listed as staff meals and entertainment.

It has a price tag of $1,048.84. A Wednesday night meal at Perry's Steakhouse was $833.32.

"The problem is there are so many staff meetings and the charges are so large," Lewis said. "And apparently a lot of them are on Friday night."

And Mike Stafford gets many of his political contributions from law firms who get county business.

"To have special interests pay for $700 and $800 meals it just doesn't look right," said Lewis.

Here's a bill for a $782.62 staff meal. Another Friday night.

I asked Stafford if he has staff meals on Friday nights.

"There are very often times when I get together with members of the staff, we'll discuss the office, we'll discuss the campaign," he said.

Nearly $700 at Goode Company Seafood.

I said to him that he will not tell us which members of the staff were at these meals.

"That's correct," he replied.

So we can't find out what staff was entertained for $324.92 at Paradise Key, a resort down in Rockport.

"This may come as a shock to you but I don't think anyone else wants to be on your TV show," Stafford said.

Many of Stafford's staff meals are at restaurants that aren't near his office or home, but close to the west side home of Donna Lightfoot. At the time she was an aide in Stafford's office. Stafford won't talk about his relationship with her, claiming it's personal.

"The public wonders when public officials are unwilling to answer questions about their campaign contributions, campaign expenditures or office holder expenditures," Lewis said.

We've already uncovered possible abuse of campaign money in Harris County.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole admitted his campaign report was full of mistakes.

Sheriff Tommy Thomas has refused to talk about much of his campaign spending concerning his use of campaign funds at restaurants he called political discussions. Some meetings at restaurants close to his ranch in New Ulm which is 90 miles from town.

What's Mike Stafford hiding, I asked?

"Mike Stafford is hiding his campaign strategy and that's that," he replied.

One of the campaign treasurers for Friends of Mike Stafford is Leroy Hermes. Hermes is a founder of an architecture firm with big government contracts. The FBI is probing design work Hermes did on Jerry Eversole's Heights house. Hermes says he was paid, but won't say how much. Hermes also helped pay off a big campaign loan for Stafford.

That's why the use of a toll road fund for office remodeling caught our eye. Like a job for $122,599 with no bid required. Who got the job? A company run by Scott Hermes.

"Scott Hermes is a contractor that FPM recommended to us to do the build out on 16," Stafford said.

"The smell keeps getting stronger," tax watchdog Bob Lemer said. "This just adds to it."

While talking to Mr. Stafford we noticed a picture in his bookcase. Pictured are the county attorney, Commissioner Eversole and Leroy Hermes. Two other guys you may have seen before were also in the photograph. They were Mike Surface and Andy Schatte. Two developers who deny the corruption allegations that landed them in handcuffs with an FBI escort early this year. They are awaiting trial.

"It's a very small, very incestuous world where people don't realize their activities look like conflicts of interest and self dealing," Lewis said.

If you'd like to see the campaign reports of folks running for county office click here.

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