The statewide officeholders in Texas are, er, a mixed bag. Comptroller Glenn Hegar is doing a god job. Attorney General Ken Paxton faces three felony indictments, three civil charges from the SEC, and a State Bar grievance scheduled for a formal hearing. When it comes to the executive branch in Texas, you just never know what you’re going to get.
Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller is the latest statewide elected official to come under official fire. It was announced on Wednesday that the Texas Rangers have launched a criminal investigation into Miller’s use of taxpayer funds to pay for two out-of-state trips. Here’s a helpful guide for those who want to better understand what’s happening.
What’s all this about?
Sid Miller, the former state representative who was elected to serve the people as ag commissioner in 2014, has been doing some traveling since taking office. Some of that travel is, of course, a necessary part of his job duties—but some of it is a lot more dubious. Specifically, the Texas Rangers are interested in a February 2015 trip to Oklahoma that cost tax payers at least $1,120, and a trip to Mississippi that same month for which Miller used $2,000 of tax and campaign funds.
Why would those trips be inappropriate?
We first learned about the trip to Oklahoma last month when the Houston Chronicle reported on it. Miller claimed that the trip was to tour the Oklahoma National Stockyards, meet with lawmakers, and sit down with the top Oklahoma agricultural official. But those details fell apart quickly under scrutiny: Miller never made it to the stockyards, he never met with the agricultural official, and—according to the Oklahoma legislators Miller met with—they didn’t invite him so much as he dropped in unannounced.
All of the lawmakers in the photograph, or their aides, said they did not invite Miller or even expect him in their state that day in February 2015. The president of the stockyards said it did not give him a tour. And Miller himself now acknowledges that he requested the meeting with the Oklahoma agriculture official – and then did not show up.
OK, but if you’re going to take an unauthorized trip on the taxpayer dime, why pick Oklahoma? One possible explanation is that Miller was in Oklahoma to get a “Jesus shot,” which is an injection that only one doctor in the world—in Oklahoma, naturally—offers, which some believe can end chronic pain for life.
Yup! Dr. John Michael Lonergan, a convicted felon whose medical license was revoked by the state of Ohio, is the only doctor in the world who offers the Jesus shot, so named because Lonergan is also an ordained minister, and says he got the idea to combine the ingredients of the shot—believed to be the hormone Dexamethasone, the anti-inflammatory Kenalog, and vitamin B12—from Jesus. It costs $300, and Miller told the Chronicle that “it’s worked out good,” though he declined to get specific.
Certainly, Miller has the right to inject himself with any legal substance he likes, and the Jesus shot is legal. But emails obtained by the Chronicle—which were released after Miller said no such correspondence existed—indicate that Miller made his appointment for the injection before he attempted to book any of the meetings during the trip.
And taxpayers paid for it?
At the time, yeah. In the aftermath of the Chronicle‘s report, he decided to reimburse the state “out of an abundance of caution.” So we paid for it, but now he’s paid us back. It’s worth noting that he did that before the emails his office withheld in response to an open records request were released.
That still doesn’t sounds great.
Miller’s former spokeswoman, Lucy Nashed, claimed earlier this month that the emails weren’t initially released because the office was overwhelmed, and it was an oversight. It’s possible that’s true—she explained that the agency only has two people handling all of its public records requests—but it’s bad news that the requests that got whoops’ed away revealed some troubling information. And at least one prominent member of Miller’s own party—and one responsible for overseeing his office’s budget—seemed pretty suspicious of that claim:
“Inadvertent? At this point, what should we believe?” said Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, who serves on the House Government Transparency & Operation Committee in addition to chairing the appropriations subcommittee that deals with agriculture issues. “The Open Records Act exists for a reason. We are the stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, and we should all, as elected officials, be accountable, transparent and honest in dealing with an open government.”
So that’s not great, either.
Wasn’t there something about a trip to Mississippi too?
Yup. In addition to his Oklahoma trip, Miller also booked a trip to Mississippi—also with taxpayer money—where he competed in a rodeo.
Wait, a rodeo?
Oh, yeah. Miller’s a longtime rodeo cowboy—in fact, that’s where the chronic pain that led him to seek out the unusual shot is said to have come from. That’s legitimate, of course—rodeoing is physically tough work, and Miller’s pretty good at it. He won $880 in a Mississippi calf-roping competition!
I know, right?
But he paid for that with taxpayer money?
According to the San Antonio Express News, he spent almost $2,000 of state and campaign funds on the trip, which landed him in Jackson for three days in February 2015. The flight was booked using a Texas Department of Agriculture credit card, while his hotel and car rental were paid for with a card associated with his campaign account.
But—and this is a big but—Miller did reimburse the state for the trip a few months later. He explained that the reason he booked it with state funds is that he had planned to meet with people in Mississippi for work while he was there, but then when those meetings didn’t get set up, he reimbursed the state.
So that’s not such a big deal, then?
Kind of. Spending campaign cash on a personal trip to compete in the rodeo isn’t misusing taxpayer funds, but it’s still a potential ethics violation. Miller disputes this—he told the Express-News that the trip was “totally legitimate” because he met with donors and advisers at the rodeo, which is a campaign expense according to the Ethics Commission. (He also used his own money for the entry fee into the competition, and to transport his horses, for what that’s worth.)
That might be—to put it charitably—a misunderstanding of the rule, though. Former Texas Ethics Commission Chair Ross Fischer told the paper that the commission ruled in 1996 that if the primary purpose of the trip is personal, he can’t use campaign cash for it even if there are some legitimate campaign purposes behind it. Ethics attorney and former elections official Buck Wood explained it pretty well to the paper: “The fact that he ran into some people at the rodeo does not change the fact that the purpose of the trip was to compete in a rodeo.”
So Miller says that the trip was legit, and ethics experts disagree?
Fischer and Wood don’t hold any official role here, so their assessment doesn’t mean that Miller’s liable for anything. But in case “it was totally legitimate” and “I paid the state back because I couldn’t set up meetings” don’t do it for you, Miller’s former communications director, Lucy Nashed, told the Texas Tribune a week before Miller offered his explanation that the trip was always supposed to be a personal trip, and somebody on staff used the wrong credit card. Whoops!
You said his “former” spokeswoman. What happened to her?
Lucy Nashed resigned this week. She described the environment at the Texas Department of Agriculture as one with a “tremendous lack of communication,” which is rough if your job is to be the communications director.
Miller’s an outspoken conservative, though. Are these accusations politically motivated?
Well, yeah, sort of. The complaint that led the Rangers to investigate came from Progress Texas, an Austin-based organization that is open in its mission to promote “progressive ideals while also pushing back on bad policies and bad behavior from the right wing.” It’s not a stretch to say that the organization that made the complaint would be pretty psyched to have played a part in getting Miller—who likes to do things like threaten to slap people who wish him “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and share Facebook memes suggesting that we should nuke “the Muslim world”—indicted.
But the initial complaint coming from a politically partisan organization doesn’t mean that the investigation itself is politically motivated. The Texas Rangers aren’t known for being an organization stacked head-to-toe with liberal headhunters, after all.
So what happens next?
The Rangers will complete their investigation. Once they’ve done so, they’ll kick it over to the Travis County District Attorney’s office. Current Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg may be out of office by then—if so, the decision whether or not to pursue criminal charges will almost certainly be made by Margaret Moore, who won the Democratic primary for the office in March, which is as good as winning the election in deep-blue Travis County. And all that means that the idea that this investigation is political won’t be going away any time soon.