Houston, we have no comment

The Houston Chronicle's investigative work may have silenced chatty Rep. Steve Stockman, but reporters need to keep the questions coming

AUSTIN, TX — It almost looked like somebody had finally figured out how to get the voluble Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Tex., to shut up. That somebody? The Houston Chronicle.

Stockman—who stunned the political world last week by quixotically filing to run for the US Senate against Republican incumbent John Cornyn—has not responded for weeks to queries by the Houston Chronicle, which has been reporting on improper Stockman campaign finance practices and a suspicious lack of detail about his personal finances. Requests for interviews, questions, and phone calls have gone unanswered or unreturned. The Chronicle’s work—in addition to apparently rendering Stockman silent—stands as a reminder to other news outlets of the value of determined, follow-the-money reporting.

A little background about Tea Party favorite Stockman: He moved to Texas in the ’80s from Michigan via Wisconsin and lived for a while, homeless, in Ft. Worth. He served one term in Congress in the 1990s, in the 9th district, before voters sent him packing in 1997 in favor of Democrat Nick Lampson. He spent the resultant years in private life before surfacing again in 2012 and winning the newly-carved and safely Republican 36th district seat. As The Washington Post recently explained about the colorful congressman, he immediately gained attention for voting “present” when it came to John Boehner’s speakership, but mostly became known for controversial posts on Twitter, including one which purported to give away an AR-15 Bushmaster rifle and another which claimed that “Obamacare is less popular than chlamydia.”

Stockman’s 2012 campaign, after years of absence from public life, caught the attention of the Chronicle, explains David McCumber, Washington bureau chief for Hearst (which owns the Chronicle)—and so did the last names of campaign contributors who, at first, seemed to be relatives of Stockman staffers. It turned out, as the Sunlight Foundation first reported in October, that the relatives had not contributed at all—the staffers had, which is expressly against the law. The campaign subsequently refunded those donations, as the Chronicle noted on Oct. 22—acknowledging the work of Sunlight, an excellent resource for reporters sifting through complicated financial filings.

“We look at all of them,” says Hearst’s McCumber, of the campaign finance reports and personal financial disclosures that candidates for and members of Congress must regularly file. “This really did stand out. The more we investigated [Stockman’s] campaign and personal affairs, the more we found.”

To wit: In November, the Chronicle reported that in at least a dozen instances, Stockman’s campaigns—last year and in the 1990s—had failed to report donations, were late to file required reports or just filed inaccurate reports altogether. As the Chronicle prepared to publish the story, Stockman’s office announced that he was firing aides Jason Posey and Thomas Dodd (Posey’s relatives were among those the campaign listed as donors when, in fact, Posey himself had donated). Stockman prebutted the Chronicle’s reporting by claiming the paper’s work was fueled by an editorial board member with a grudge; that employee, Tim Fleck, retired from the Chronicle in 2011. (Fleck and Stockman tangled in the ’90s, when Fleck covered the congressman for the Houston Press).

Then, on Nov. 25, the Chronicle dropped the other shoe: Stockman’s personal financial dealings did not add up. He failed to disclose his personal finances in 2012 about, per the Chronicle, “business affiliations that stretch from Texas to the British Virgin Islands, and has provided no details about the business he claims as his sole source of income.” In the spring of this year, Stockman finally filed a vague report claiming $350,000 in salary and fees from an entity called “Presidential Trust Marketing.” No such firm appears to exist, according to the Chronicle, though Stockman filed paperwork in Wyoming and Harris County, Texas claiming an affiliation with a similarly-named company and a similarly-named non-profit.

It turns out that Stockman filed paperwork to create no fewer than 17 different companies and entities during his years in private life—all of them based out of a couple of PO boxes. The Chronicle created this helpful infographic to illustrate Stockman’s business entanglements. When pressed for answers, Stockman’s office simply told the Chronicle they would no longer even accept questions, according to McCumber, who oversaw the work of Chronicle reporters Lise Olsen (in Houston) and Will Tucker (in DC). The Chronicle has asked the House Republican leadership, namely Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, for comment as well. So far? No response.

McCumber confirms that the paper will continue to pull at this string. “There are other aspects we are still reporting,” he says.

Earlier this month, when Stockman still seemed likely to seek reelection in Texas’s 36th district, the Chronicle’s editorial board had this to say:

Some of Stockman’s antics would be funny if he occupied a less-significant office, but in a Southeast Texas district that’s poorer than most, a district that not only includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center but also needs jobs and health care and education opportunities, residents deserve better from the person who purports to represent them in Washington.

The good thing about congressional terms is that voters get a do-over every two years. In 2014, they need to take advantage.

As of last week, Stockman is a candidate (a long shot, yes) for a six-year term representing all of Texas. Stockman has a lot of answering to do to his current and would-be constituents. The Chronicle’s efforts to date to get answers have attracted some national media attention, including MSNBC, The Huffington Post, and Breitbart (to which Stockman actually spoke last week, without answering much). Reporters—particularly those in state—need to keep the questions coming.

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker. Tags: , , ,