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Campaign fund use by former state rep questioned

by Cyndy Barton & Anita Miller

Former State Representative Jason Isaac may have betrayed public trust, but likely broke no laws, in his use of campaign funds, according to an investigation of his spending after he lost a primary election in a race for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Isaac used campaign funds to pay for an Austin apartment after he lost the Republican primary in a bid for Congress.

From April through December of that year, Isaac used more than $21,000 in campaign funds to pay for the application fee, monthly rent, utilities, insurance and cable bill for an apartment home in southwest Austin adjacent to the private school his two children attend. Isaac listed the expenses as an “officeholder apartment” on campaign finance reports.

Isaac told the Hays Free Press that it was the campaign that rented the apartment, not him, and that his wife Carrie, who was treasurer of her husband’s campaign, never lived there, nor did the couple’s two children.

“I had the apartment in Austin as I was closing up my office, which a lot of legislators do. I don’t consider that living there, though I did stay there sometime during the week.”

Carrie Isaac recently announced that she is running for the same state representative seat that her husband held. According to the state Ethics Commission, office holders are allowed to spend campaign funds on rent. However, tradition has been that those who live within driving distance of Austin typically do not rent apartments there.

Jason Isaac’s home residence when he was elected was less than two miles from the Travis County line and even had an Austin street address.

The Isaac campaign rented a property at The Preserve at Travis Creek, which advertises that its “homes are stunning sanctuaries of pure luxury, with eco-friendly features, open design and handcrafted elements.”

The property is as close to his district as it is to the state capitol, about 8.5 miles from each.

Isaac was first elected in 2011, but the payment for the officeholder apartment did not begin until April 2018 – when he was no longer commuting to the state Capitol. By the time he rented the apartment, his final legislative session was concluded and he had filed to run.

During the previous seven years, Isaac commuted the approximately 18-mile drive from the Capitol to his home in the Dripping Springs area.

Campaign finance records show that Isaac paid the application fee on April 6, 2018.

About the same time, Isaac and his wife put their house in the district on the market for sale. According to real estate records, the house went on the market in June 2018. It was listed as a pending sale in July but went back on the market until finally closing on Nov. 29, 2018, when a deed filed in real property records of Hays County transferred ownership to new owners. For the remaining 40 days of Isaac’s term as a member of the Texas House, he no longer had a residence in District 45.

Attorney Eric Opiela, a Republican, seems to question the legality of Isaac’s expenditures, though Democratic attorney Buck Wood said he didn’t see a problem.

According to Opiela, who also served for a time as the state Republican Party’s executive director, the legality of the Isaacs’ use of campaign funds for his apartment home in southwest Austin comes down to intent. Did Isaac intend the apartment to support his official work as the representative, or was it for personal use?

Isaac announced on March 29, 2018, via Twitter, that he had taken a new job in Austin as president of a public policy organization, saying he was “eager to get to work expanding [the organization].” Eight days later, Jason Isaac used campaign funds to pay the application fee for his apartment home in Austin.

“Just because you list something as an officeholder expense on a finance report doesn’t make it one. The facts here certainly have the appearance of using campaign funds for personal use rather than the performance of one’s duties as a public official,” Opiela said.

“Residency questions are difficult to prove as a matter of state law,” explained Opeila. “It’s easy to claim to reside in a district without actually living there. It’s not so easy to have a candidate disqualified from the ballot, but it has happened in both primary and general elections.” The bigger problem with residency claims, according to Opeila, is how voters react to a candidate who claims to live in their district without actually living there.

Wood confirmed there are roadblocks associated with proving residency in Texas. “Residency in Texas is so elastic it’s almost impossible to challenge,” he said, adding that he’s made that challenge“a number of times.”

He cited a 1960s decision by the Texas Supreme Court that essentially said a residency can be where an elected official intends it to be. “You’ve got to have somebody do something that’s totally incompatible with that residency. One of them is voting in another jurisdiction,” he said. Both Jason and Carrie Isaac have maintained their voter registration in Hays County.

Although the Texas Legislature ended its session in May 2017, Wood noted that Isaac’s term did not expire until the end of 2018, and that Governor Greg Abbott can call a special session at any time.

Wood said the only way he sees an ethical violation would be if Isaac used his campaign funds to pay for the apartment because he was personally unable to afford the rent. Concerning possible ethics violations, he said due to the difficulty of challenging residency in Texas, “the Ethics Commission would not want to get involved in trying to second-guess his declared residence.”

Wood said that where the Isaac children were enrolled in school probably doesn’t have any bearing in the case. “I claimed once that putting kids in school somewhere else destroyed their residency. I lost that case.”

Wood declined to say whether Isaac’s actions passed the “smell test.” “I don’t get into the political,” he said. “I stay with the law.”

While Jason Isaac concluded his term as District 45’s state representative no longer residing in the district, the residency question may carry over for his wife, Carrie. On March 28, 2019, a deed was filed transferring ownership of a two-bedroom home in Woodcreek to the Isaacs from two longtime political donors.

Public filings indicate the home was provided via owner-financing with no down payment and a balloon note for the full purchase price of $260,000 due five years from the date of purchase.

Address searches also indicate another current home address for the Isaacs in a four-bedroom rented home less than two miles from their former apartment home, also adjacent to their children’s private school.

The deadline to file for the March 3 primaries is Monday, Dec. 9 at 6 p.m. So far, Carrie Isaac, Kent Bud Wymore, Austin Talley and Holly Newson are filed to run as Republicans; Zwiener has drawn no opponents in the Democratic primary.

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