Sunday, October 26th, 2014

One car, two car, red car, blue car

Todd Staples, left, and Hank Gilbert are running for agriculture commissioner.
Todd Staples, left, and Hank Gilbert are running for agriculture commissioner.

Fact-checking is not always straightforward — something we learned recently while trying to get to the bottom of a seemingly simple question that arose in the race for state agriculture commissioner: Was there one Suburban or two?

The existence of cars shouldn't be difficult to prove, we reasoned. Little did we know that we'd soon run into dead ends.

It all began when the campaign of Hank Gilbert, the Democratic candidate, issued a press release July 6 alleging that the GOP incumbent, Todd Staples, was using as his personal vehicle a Suburban that was purchased by his campaign in 2005. Gilbert "questioned why Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples bought a Suburban with campaign funds, registered it in his own name, and is still driving it around."

Unless he reimbursed the campaign, that would put Staples in violation of state ethics law, according to Gilbert's press release and our own research. State law forbids the personal use of an item bought with campaign money.

To support its statement that Staples is driving a campaign-bought vehicle, Gilbert's release pointed to two documents: a campaign finance report filed by Staples' political committee in January 2006 and a record labeled "Texas DMV Detail" from publicdata.com, a commercial website that sells information that it says is gathered from governmental records, including those on driver's licenses and vehicles.

The campaign report shows an expenditure for $15,406.25 at Cutshaw Chevrolet in Grapeland on July 9, 2005. Gilbert's release says the publicdata.com record shows that Staples — not his campaign — owns a Chevrolet Suburban that received a title on July 22, 2005. The release claims that these two documents refer to the same vehicle — a charge that Staples' aides deny.

The same day the Gilbert statement was released, Staples' campaign manager, Cody McGregor, told the Dallas Morning News that it was "100 percent wrong" and that there "were two separate vehicles."

The campaign says that both Staples and his campaign purchased SUVs on July 9, 2005, and that Staples still drives his. Bryan Eppstein, Staples' campaign consultant, told us that the campaign sold its vehicle in 2008 — a transaction that does not show up in Staples' campaign finance reports. (Tim Sorrells, deputy general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission, told us the Texas Election Code does not deal specifically with reporting the sale of a campaign asset.)

We asked the Gilbert and Staples campaigns to provide evidence of their claims. Interestingly, they each said the burden of proof was on the other guy.

"Our position is that a second vehicle does not and never did exist," said Vince Leibowitz, campaign manager for Gilbert. "The Staples campaign has only belatedly claimed one did; we are not in a position to prove the existence of something we contend does not exist."

For his part, Eppstein insisted that the information he gave us proved that this was a tale of two Suburbans.

First, Eppstein told us that the vehicle identification number listed on the publicdata.com record referenced by the Gilbert campaign matches the one for Staples' personal SUV, not the campaign's former car. Second, he said, both the publicdata.com record and the state documents he showed us listed a vehicle purchase price of about $36,000. Compare that with the $15,406 expenditure on the campaign's report, and you've got two different prices and two different cars, according to Eppstein's argument.

Perhaps. But where was the vehicle identification number for the Suburban the campaign bought? Vehicle registration? A copy of the title transfer or vehicle transfer notification? Where was documentation that a second car existed?

Eppstein allowed us to look at — but would not give us a copy of — state records like the "title application receipt" for the vehicle he said is Staples' personal car. Although he said he had the same documents for the former campaign vehicle, Eppstein would not allow us to examine them, saying that he didn't want to involve the vehicle's new owners in a political story.

Journalists call this a "he said, she said" standoff — though in this case, it's "he said, he said." We thought of several ways to settle the argument:

1) Staples could sign a form that would give us access to information about his cars from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. (Privacy laws prevented us from getting the information on our own.) Eppstein said no.

2) Staples could give Cutshaw Chevrolet permission to give us information about the sale (or sales) of the vehicle (or vehicles). Eppstein said no.

3) Staples' campaign could provide us with proof of the 2008 sale of the Suburban. Eppstein said he had a copy of the check but would not allow us to see it because "we're not going to do research for our opponents."

So, the Gilbert campaign failed to substantiate its claim, and the Staples campaign refused to show us the records that would have refuted it.

That leaves PolitiFact Texas unable to issue a ruling. But we can make a claim of our own: Counting cars shouldn't be this difficult.