"This kind of political strong-arming is reprehensible."
By WAYNE SLATER
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry's appointee as chairman of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission is soliciting contributions for the governor's re-election campaign from the owners of bars and restaurants he regulates.
In an e-mail to hundreds of restaurants that serve alcohol, José Cuevas seeks donations of $1,000 to $5,000 for a Perry fundraiser next month at an Austin steakhouse.
Cuevas, a Midland restaurateur, was appointed by Perry to the commission in 2004 and was named chairman last year. The agency regulates all phases of the alcoholic beverage business in Texas, including the restaurants whose owners he asked to give money. Cuevas was not identified as chairman of the commission, but he acknowledged that those receiving the e-mail would have known who he was. Both he and the governor's campaign defended the solicitation as coming from a fellow restaurant owner, not as someone who regulates restaurants.
"In this case, you have a letter from someone who is a longtime restaurant owner who is soliciting money from people in the same business," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner.
The solicitation violates no laws, as it came from Cuevas personally and not under the official auspices of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Members of state boards and commissions receive ethics training, but Miner declined to say whether the Republican governor has a policy on political activity by his appointees.
'Conflict of interest'
Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks campaign contributions, said the notion that Cuevas was acting solely as a businessman isn't good enough.
"The people receiving this letter, the restaurant and bar owners, can live or die by his actions," McDonald said. "The recipient thinks, 'Do I have to give or do I not have to give?' This is totally a conflict of interest."
The fundraising e-mail went to more than 200 people in the restaurant business, including owners, suppliers and attorneys. It included a reply form for donors to e-mail the Perry campaign with their pledge.
The solicitation, signed by Cuevas and three other Perry supporters, touts the governor's stewardship of the state as "good for business, plain and simple."
In a veiled reference to Perry's challenger, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the fundraising appeal denounces "Washington politicians" and repeats a campaign theme that Perry is responsible for job creation and economic development.
"The only thought I gave is that these are the guys who are usually politically involved in restaurant issues," Cuevas said. "They understand politics and are always involved."
The fundraising appeal raised eyebrows among several lobbyists and restaurant owners, who said they could not recall a similar solicitation.
"It's certainly a little odd. It'd be like the racing commissioner sending out a fundraising letter to all the tracks," said one Austin lobbyist, a Republican who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concern his clients might be punished.
Said a Democratic lobbyist, who also asked not to be identified: "It's the only letter I've ever seen from a regulator to a group of people [he regulates] asking for this kind of support."
Seeing act of loyalty
Ralph Sheffield, a restaurant owner from Temple who is a Republican member of the Texas House, said Cuevas probably signed the fundraising e-mail out of loyalty to Perry.
"He wears a couple of hats," Sheffield said. "Probably José is wearing the restaurant hat, not the regulator hat, when he signed that letter."
Miner said that although Perry has no problem with Cuevas' solicitation – "None at all" – he would not say whether the governor has a general policy on state regulators soliciting those they regulate.
"I'm not going to comment on hypotheticals," Miner said.
The Texas Restaurant Association has supported Perry in the past, although the trade group has not chosen sides between Perry and Hutchison, who will face each other in the March Republican primary.
Campaign records show that Perry has received more than $400,000 from restaurant interests since he became governor in 2000. In addition, he has raised nearly $800,000 from beer and liquor interests regulated by the TABC.
As a candidate seeking statewide office for the first time in 1990, Perry called for an investigation of his Democratic opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, because a grain and seed regulator under Hightower was soliciting campaign contributions from those he regulated.
Perry's campaign manager denounced "the shakedown of people regulated by the Texas Department of Agriculture" and said that "this kind of political strong-arming is reprehensible."
© 2009 Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com
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