County Commissioner Rodney Ellis justifies spending even though campaign hasn't launched

HOUSTON – Commissioner Rodney Ellis is a fixture in Houston politics.

He's a familiar face in Commissioners Court as well as around town, according to his latest campaign finance report.

Ellis recently sat down with Channel 2 Investigates and informed us that when it comes to his campaign finance report, "I go overboard in making sure I disclose not only what is required but give as much detail as I can."

At 268 pages, Ellis' last report covers from July to December 2018. When stacked up against his commission colleagues, Ellis completely dwarfs them.

The 65-year-old has a robust campaign war chest.

Although he's not up for reelection until 2020, he is spending campaign funds like he's in the middle of a tight race. When asked if he has any campaign offices at this time? Ellis rapidly responded, “No."

As for his campaign staff? Ellis equally as quickly points out, "No, no staff."

As for his campaign officially launching? Ellis offers up a four-word response, “No, I have not."

Channel 2 Investigates found Ellis buying campaign phone services, storage, even a campaign computer from Best Buy on Christmas Eve. If he can't buy the things in person, he goes online.

When Channel 2 Investigates asked Ellis what is he purchasing on Amazon considering that he has no campaign office?

Ellis said, “You know I have to go look and see."

A total of 17 purchases via Amazon for "supplies" or "equipment" is what we uncovered. We also found Ellis shopping at grocery stores, eight purchases at the Whole Foods in Upper Kirby. Ellis said he uses campaign funds to supplement his county office expenses, including meals.

"Look, I just did lunch with my staff today,” he said.

When told he had plenty of lunches, Ellis said, “Yeah we paid for it off of the campaign. If I'm eating with my staff members, arguably I can charge that to the office, but why get criticized for that?"

Ellis is quick to point out he is not using taxpayer money, but it's not his own money either. The funds come from campaign donors money to help him get re-elected. However, keep in mind, when asked if his campaign has officially launched, Ellis said, “No, I have not.”

This said, he has a campaign vehicle, a Cadillac Escalade. Records show it made 27 visits to Mister Car Wash on Kirby. Ellis admitting the vehicle has seen a lot of asphalt, "Hey we put in a lot of miles."

Thousands of miles in the air as well. Last September, Ellis spent more than $10,000 from campaign funds for business-class flights and a Ritz Carlton Hotel stay in Barcelona, Spain, for an oil and gas conference. When the conference wrapped, Ellis then took a cross-country trip to Seville to learn about bikes.

He admitted to Channel 2 Investigates that he went to Seville for bike infrastructure. However, in his campaign finance report, Ellis lists that he went to Seville for the Gastech conference?

“Well, I did both," he said.

Geographically speaking, Seville is 618 miles away from Barcelona. When informing him that he took the trip after the conference was over Ellis asked Channel 2 Investigates, “So what are you looking at here?”

We informed him that we were looking at his report.

The campaign was charged over $1,200 in transportation and hotel costs for Seville. Remember, Ellis admitted the trip was not campaign-related.

Contrary to what is listed in his report, Ellis said, "When I went to Seville, a good part of it, maybe most of it, I probably paid for. I may have charged for a meal or something else."

Bay Scoggin with the government watchdog Texas Public Interest Research Group summed up the expenditures with one simple line, "Look I'm not going to lie to you, this stinks!"

The State's Election Code has statutes that say politicians can't use campaign contributions for personal use.  Rice political science professor Mark Jones says it appears that's exactly what he's doing.

"It would appear Rodney Ellis is using some of his campaign funds to fund things that most people would consider to be personal expenses," Jones said.

Ellis said, in his mind, the spending is justified and the expenses are legal.

"If I'm flying on my personal business, I'm going to fly business class, if it’s international,” he said.

When reminded that he uses the dollars that other people gave him to do so?

Ellis said, “Yeah."

Ellis also admitted his campaign vehicle, a Cadillac Escalade, has a monthly lease of “$1,700 or $1,800.” Ellis says he pays 25% of his lease out of pocket with the rest paid for with dollars from the campaign as well as public funds Harris County.