As Abbott Questions Legality of Davis' Book Tour, Experts Find Little Precedent

Sep 9, 2014

Whether Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis can promote her memoir out Sept. 9, 2014 and still abide by Texas campaign finance laws is being questioned by the campaign of her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott.
Credit Blue Rider Press

State Sen. Wendy Davis’ memoir comes out today, though the Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s book has already caused some controversy. In it, she shares the stories of two abortions she had for medical reasons.

Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott’s campaign, however, is focusing on another issue – whether she can promote her book and still abide by Texas campaign finance laws. Abbott’s campaign asked the state’s campaign finance regulator to weigh in Monday.

It’s not unusual for a candidate to go on a book tour before, or even during, a campaign. While that’s more common at the federal level, it’s less frequent in state politics. So Abbott’s campaign wants the Texas Ethics Commission to look at four things:

  • Could spending by the book’s publisher to promote Davis be an illegal corporate contribution?
  • Can the publisher pay for her travel to promote the book if the events are coordinated with the campaign?
  • Can the campaign pay for travel for campaign events if they’re coordinated with the publisher to allow for book publicity?
  • And how should Davis report the royalties from the book sales?

"I think General Abbott raises an intriguingly complicated question here," says Andrew Wheat, the research director for Texans for Public Justice, a non-profit focused on money in politics. He says the last time book sales and campaign trails came up was in 2010, when Gov. Rick Perry published his book, “Fed Up."

"In Perry’s case there was another corporate question involved because AT&T bought up 700 copies of Gov. Perry’s book to pass out at a political conference in D.C.," Wheat says. "So was that an illegal corporate contribution or did it occur through AT&T’s PAC?"

Wendy Davis’ campaign says it has been careful to follow every legal guideline. Davis spokesperson Zac Petkanas called the Abbott campaign’s request to the Ethics Commission “a frivolous stunt.”

Ross Fischer teaches at the UT Law School. He spent five years on the Texas Ethics Commission and says the Abbott campaign is asking valid questions "because they involve two important areas. One is corporate involvement in a statewide campaign, and the second is conversion of campaign funds to personal use."

Fischer says the timing of Davis’s book tour so close to the election is unprecedented.  He says her campaign should have asked these questions to the Ethics Commission a while back, before Abbott did.

"If you rely on ethics advisory opinion, it provides a person with defense to criminal prosecution and a defense to civil penalties administered by the Texas Ethics Commission," Fischer says. "The prudent thing would have been for the Davis campaign to ask these questions nine months ago."

Fischer says the Commission’s opinion isn’t likely to come before the November election.