On behalf of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a campaign consultant recently ripped Staples’ Democratic challenger, Hank Gilbert.
Consultant Bryan Eppstein’s July 15 e-mail to PolitiFact Texas says: "The (D)emocrat candidate for Texas commissioner of agriculture has a criminal conviction for theft, has multiple years of unpaid taxes, has multiple tax liens and fines, unsafe driving convictions, has recently been accused of taking a bribe and is on record lying to the press this year about his criminal record."
Hardly. Several news articles have been written on Gilbert’s legal history, and the Staples campaign has aired them on its "Guilty Guilty Gilbert" website.
Generally, the campaigns have sniped so much that the Houston Chronicle has called the race a "snarling, gouging, roll-in-the-dirt rhetorical grudge match," a reference to their 2006 faceoff when Staples beat Gilbert to win his office.
Novel or not, the Staples campaign (through a surrogate) lobs six (count ‘em) charges. Do they stick?
Let’s start with the criminal conviction. In January 2001, according to a Smith County court document, Gilbert, who lives near the East Texas burg of Whitehouse, pleaded guilty to a Class C misdemeanor theft charge, paying a $100 fine plus court costs.
Earlier this year, the American-Statesman quoted as Gilbert saying the arrest originated in miscommunication between accountants for a cleaning service he and his wife own. That miscommunication, Gilbert said, led to three months’ worth of payroll taxes going unpaid. The snafu, Gilbert said, also resulted in a $100 check that he thinks was written to Lowe’s, the home improvement store, initially going unpaid. The check touched off the theft charge, according to Gilbert.
Vince Leibowitz, Gilbert’s campaign manager, objected to calling the misdemeanor conviction "theft," saying it was "theft by check." He shared a copy of what he said was Gilbert’s plea agreement; it says he was charged with "theft by check," a Class B misdemeanor. A judgment signed by a county court-at-law judge says Gilbert pleaded guilty to the "lesser included offense of Theft C."
We contacted the Smith County district attorney’s office where Leslie McLean, an assistant district attorney, confirmed that Gilbert was originally charged with Class B "theft by check."
On a related front, McLean said Gilbert’s case stemmed from a $149.39 check paid to a local resident — information a bit different from what Gilbert said earlier this year.
As to unpaid taxes, the Statesman quoted Gilbert as saying he and his wife had 18 months remaining on an IRS repayment plan. According to the newspaper’s report, Gilbert had to pay back not only missed tax payments, but also two years’ worth of penalties and interest to cover for the period he did not know their business had missed his payments.
"Small businesses go through this kind of thing every day," Gilbert told the Statesman. "Unfortunately a lot of them choose the easy way out and stiff whoever they owe and never pay them. That’s not the kind of people we are."
Smith County records posted by Staples’ campaign indicate that Gilbert faced tax liens for unpaid taxes in 1995, 2000, 2001 and 2002. All told, the records indicate, he accumulated $77,126 in taxes and penalties. Leibowitz told us Gilbert is repaying everything.
And Gilbert’s driving record? A Smith County document posted by Staples’ campaign indicates Gilbert got a ticket for driving with an expired driver’s license in April 2008 for which he paid a $134.50 fine plus court costs in January 2010. That month, his campaign told the Dallas Morning News that Gilbert dealt with the ticket after aides noticed he was driving with the expired license. The newspaper said he’d gotten the ticket for the expired license when he got a speeding ticket in 2008.
Another Smith County document says Gilbert was ticketed in March 2005 for driving without a seat belt, later paying a $53 fine plus court costs. "I never wear one," Gilbert was quoted in the Morning News this January. "I just plug them in to keep them from dinging."
Linda Culp, chief clerk of the county’s Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace court, checked county records and found that in addition to what the Staples campaign highlighted, Gilbert paid fines for tickets he got in 1997-98 for speeding, not wearing a seat belt and not having auto insurance.
In Gilbert’s defense, Leibowitz said: "When you look at driving without a seat belt, that is not necessarily unsafe to other passengers on the road. That is unsafe to you." The campaign manager said Gilbert does use his seat belt, contrary to what the candidate told the Dallas newspaper.
Let’s pull over and assess the first four charges in Eppstein’s statement.
Criminal conviction for theft? Actually, Gilbert was charged with the Class B misdemeanor of "theft by check" and pleaded guilty to a lesser, Class C charge, according to the court documents provided by his campaign.
Multiple years of unpaid taxes? Yes (though Gilbert’s said he’s paying them back).
Multiple tax liens and fines? Yes, yet note the repayment declaration.
Unsafe driving convictions? Gilbert acknowledges tickets he’s paid, including for speeding and not wearing his seat belt. Smith County says he previously paid for tickets on other violations.
Next, let’s tackle the rest of Eppstein’s sally — that Gilbert has recently been accused of taking a bribe and is on record lying to the press about his criminal record.
Kinky Friedman, Gilbert’s opponent for the Democratic nomination for agriculture commissioner, raised his eyebrows in January at the revelation in campaign contribution and expenditure reports that Gilbert fielded $150,000 in donations from Farouk Shami, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, in late 2009 after Gilbert left the governor’s race to run for ag commissioner.
Friedman called the donations a bribe. Gilbert’s campaign replied there was no payoff. Shami said likewise. And that’s where everyone left it, far as we can tell.
Eppstein’s last punch — that Gilbert is on record lying to the press this year about his criminal record — refers to Gilbert’s responses on a questionnaire from the Dallas Morning News. Staples’ website says the question was: "Have you ever been arrested?"
Gilbert answered that he was arrested for an "unpaid traffic ticket," according to an excerpt from the questionnaire posted by Staples’ campaign. Eppstein, objecting, said Gilbert omitted his 2001 conviction. However, Leibowitz told us, the Democrat was never arrested on that charge, a point confirmed by Laurita Vodak, court coordinator for Smith County Court-at-Law No. 3.
How do the last two claims by Eppstein rate? Well, Gilbert was accused of taking a bribe, but that charge came from a political opponent, hardly an impartial force.
Staples’ last claim — that Gilbert lied by not including his theft conviction in answering the question about arrests — is flawed. Gilbert wasn’t arrested on the charge, though he certainly faced justice and could have mentioned the conviction on the questionnaire.
All in all, we rate the Staples campaign’s statement Half True.
Footnote: We’d be happy not to sort multi-part charges again. That OK with everyone?