Irving legislator Linda Harper-Brown reviews years of finance reports showing no repayment for $450,000 in loans
07:30 AM CDT on Friday, October 15, 2010
By BRANDON FORMBY / The Dallas Morning News
State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown is reviewing years of campaign finance reports amid questions about more than $450,000 in loans for which her campaign disclosure forms show no record of repayment.
The Irving Republican , who is a bookkeeper and whose husband is an accountant, declined requests for an interview this month. Harper-Brown’s campaign manager said this week that the representative is seeking guidance from the Texas Ethics Commission about how she accounted for loans on finance forms.
An analysis by The Dallas Morning News of Harper-Brown’s campaign finance reports from March 2002 through this month found that more than $450,000 in loans show no record of repayment.
According to her reports, Harper-Brown had $531,444 in loans in the past eight years. She repaid as much as $23,553, according to campaign finance reports. That would leave a balance of more than $507,000 in outstanding loans. Her latest campaign finance report says her outstanding loan balance is $51,750.
Campaign manager Brian Mayes said Harper-Brown’s husband, William E. Brown III, always consults with the ethics commission before filing the required campaign finance forms. Mayes said that different employees with the commission often give different advice and that campaign finance rules are constantly changing. He said any errors were unintentional and “clerical” in nature.
“You almost have to be a CPA trained by the ethics commission to file these reports correctly,” Mayes said.
Loans from husband
The bulk of Harper-Brown’s loans dating to 2002 came from Brown, who over the years loaned his wife more than $350,000. Harper-Brown has paid back as much as $15,495 of that, according to her reports.
Brown was at the center of an ethics scandal that his wife faced this summer after The News reported that Harper-Brown’s 2010 Mercedes Benz E-550 was owned by a state transportation contractor. Harper-Brown sits on the powerful House Transportation Committee.
Brown does accounting work for the contractor and its related companies, which provided him with the Mercedes and a 2004 Chevrolet Tahoe as compensation. Harper-Brown has said she did nothing wrong in driving the car or outfitting both with state official license plates. Harper-Brown said she stopped driving the Mercedes.
Mayes said Harper-Brown is awaiting word from the ethics commission about whether any corrections need to be made to previous campaign finance reports. Elected officials can amend their previous reports years after they are filed.
Tim Sorrells, deputy general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission, said loan balances should carry over from each campaign finance reporting period. Sorrells said finance rules become unclear when a loan is forgiven.
Harper-Brown’s campaign finance reports note that her outstanding loans are interest-free and have no maturity date. It’s not clear whether Brown or others who provided loans have told Harper-Brown that she can keep the money and doesn’t have to repay it.
“If the loan is just a forgiven loan, then the statute’s not specific as to how to report that,” Sorrells said.
Reporting as gifts
But a lawyer for the Texas Values in Action Coalition, a political action group that tries to get Democratic candidates elected to state offices, said forgiven loans should be reported as gifts.
“I receive something of value from you and I need to report that somewhere on the form,” attorney Ed Cloutman said. “That’s the whole point of the form.”
The Texas Values in Action Coalition filed a complaint with the ethics commission about how Harper-Brown reported her outstanding loan balances. Sorrells said the commission cannot confirm or deny whether complaints have been filed.
Mayes said the group’s complaint is political. Harper-Brown faces Democrat Loretta Haldenwang in the Nov. 2 election, and Mayes said the coalition is looking for any reason to criticize the Republican incumbent.
“If there’s a ‘t’ not crossed, they’re going to look for it,” Mayes said. “I think we do need to consider the source.”
Russell Langley, a spokesman for the coalition, said Harper-Brown should reveal where the hundreds of thousands of dollars went and not attack the messenger.
“For someone who’s a bookkeeper for a living, having almost half a million dollars vanish from your balance sheet is not just an ethical problem, but a legal problem she’s going to have to address with the Ethics Commission,” Langley said.
Andy Wilson is a campaign finance researcher for Public Citizen, a group that advocates for open government and was founded by Ralph Nader. He said Harper-Brown’s reported loan balances could be a “clerical error.”
Wilson criticized Texas campaign finance laws, which he said don’t give the commission enough enforcement powers. He also said Texas’ campaign finance laws force politicians to go on a “money chase.”
“There are too many people who get egg on their face for things that they might think are innocent,” he said.