Are Harris County taxpayers funding commissioner Rodney Ellis' campaign vehicle?

By Mario Diaz - Reporter

HOUSTON - Who can forget Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis?

In April, KPRC 2 Investigates confirmed with Ellis that he had no campaign office, yet according to his campaign finance records, he was still making purchases on Amazon for supplies.

When KPRC 2 Investigates specifically asked what he was purchasing on Amazon, Ellis said, “You know I have to go look and see."

As KPRC 2 Investigates identified, Ellis made several eyebrow-raising expenses using campaign contributions from donors, including international flights in business class.

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

When asked if he uses the dollars that other people gave to him to do so, he said he did.

KPRC 2 Investigates identified myriad campaign expenses by the 65-year-old at Amazon, Whole Foods, even a campaign computer purchased at Best Buy on Christmas Eve. Yet, Ellis made it clear in April his run at reelection was on the sidelines, admitting he had no campaign office nor had he launched his campaign.

Since then, Ellis filed a new report. It's 41 pages smaller.

Click here to see Ellis' first-half spending report.

“He has essentially changed his behavior somewhat," Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said.

Jones is referencing no more expenditures for campaign meetings at Smoothie King.

"One way to look at the Smoothie King purchases is that they were not campaign expenditures. The other would be that Rodney Ellis is just saying that he is exercising an abundance of caution," Jones said.

However, in the new campaign finance report, KPRC 2 Investigates still uncovered 25 purchases at Phoenicia Foods for meetings, 15 Amazon purchases, all listed as supplies except for one purchase back on Feb. 17 for a bullhorn. Car washes at Mister Car Wash are down a dozen, to only 15 this go around. The finance report also lists payments for his campaign ride of choice, a Cadillac Escalade.

It comes with a costly monthly lease payment according to Ellis: "I think it may be $1,700, $1,800 a month. I don't know the exact number."

However, Ellis did explain how he pays the lease.

"The Escalade is split -- 50% is paid for by the campaign, 25% comes from my car allowance and 25% comes out of my pocket," he said.

Simple arithmetic equates to one realization, Harris County taxpayers - regardless of party affiliation - are paying for a portion of Ellis' campaign vehicle.

Click here to see the Harris County vehicle allowance rules.

Following Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, KPRC 2 Investigates attempted to ask Ellis about taxpayers funding his campaign vehicle.

When asked, “Should Harris County taxpayers be on the hook for your campaign vehicle?”

Ellis responded: "I appreciate it. It's been a long day.”

When reminded, “It’s a simple question, sir,” Ellis did not respond and walked away. His also pointed us to a 2000 Texas Ethics Commission opinion.

The opinion makes no reference regarding taxpayers helping fund a campaign vehicle.

In fact, Harris County's own policy references a monthly allowance to compensate for use of an elected official's personal vehicle.

"We're not funding the part that he is using for the campaign or his personal business,” said Doug Ray with the County Attorney's Office.

Taxpayers can rest assured, even though Ellis uses the car for the campaign and the county, taxpayers are making a payment on the lease of Ellis' Escalade on the commissioner's use of it on county time.

"It's a political campaign vehicle in part. Part of it is being used for official county business, that is the part that we are funding,” Ray said.

Others like Jones have a different perspective, “This is very suboptimal in that he is mixing together campaign money, personal money and taxpayer money and so indirectly taxpayers are funding his campaign vehicle."

In a statement, Ellis tells KPRC 2 Investigates that he takes the county’s policy very seriously and is confident that he is in complete compliance. KPRC 2 Investigates did ask him for a copy of the lease, however, Ellis’ team refused to hand it over, claiming “it is not a public document.”  However, Ellis did admit public dollars are involved.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo campaigned heavily on transparency and ethics reform. However, Hidalgo turned down an interview request for this report informing us she is taking a pass this time around.

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