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Texas Legislator Uses Prisoner-Made Goods as Gifts for Campaign Contributors

by Matt Clarke

When Republican Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle scheduled her “Riddle Executive Leadership Summit” at the Lanier Theological Library in August 2011, the agenda mentioned several “esteemed discussion leaders,” a buffet reception and special gifts for large campaign donors. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, those gifts – which were produced by state prisoners – included heirloom-quality furniture and other items made in Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) programs.

The invitations Riddle sent to her supporters included a request for campaign donations at several “participation levels,” ranging from $1,000 to $20,000. Each participation level had a corresponding gift, such as prisoner-made replicas of furniture from the Capitol, a hand-tooled leather-topped coffee table with matching chair, a hand-tooled leather duffel bag, a Lone Star flag cutting board, a hand-tooled leather rifle case and a hand-carved rocking horse with leather saddle.

The furniture included hand-carved Capitol benches, constitutional chairs, judge’s chairs and desks. “Please note that the donor gifts are exclusive and cannot be purchased on the open market,” the invitation stated. “The descriptions seem inadequate for most of these items, and you will find an enclosure with photographs to show their beauty.”

Outside the Texas prison system, the only individuals who can purchase goods made in TCI programs are law-makers. When questioned about giving gifts to campaign donors that were obtained by virtue of her legislative position, and whether that was uncomfortably close to using an elected office to raise campaign funds, Rep. Riddle demurred.

“It’s no different than ‘if you donate that you get a T-shirt and a coffee mug,’” she said. “We can purchase these items from the prison system as gifts. We can buy them, but we cannot sell them. I am not selling these any more than I am selling a T-shirt” given to someone who makes a donation.

The difference, of course, is that there is no restriction on who can purchase and then give away T-shirts or mugs. But items produced in TCI programs are not available to the general public and can only be acquired by government agencies and lawmakers.

Riddle was candid about her actions. “It is not at all uncommon for elected officials, way, way long before I got here, if they have a donor who has been very generous to them, to give them a constitutional chair or a judge’s chair [the styles of chairs used in the Capitol] or something like that,” she said. “I am an open book. I’m not doing anything different than anyone else has done, except maybe I’ve been a little less subtle. Maybe I’d be a better politician if I learned how to play tricks.”

State Rep. Charlie Green, who chairs the House Administrative Committee, when asked about rules for the purchase of TCI-made items by state legislators, said it was “up to the individual member” so long as they did not resell what they bought. Asked about using such purchases as gifts for campaign contributors, he said he had never heard of that practice before and would not do it personally.

State ethics laws expert Buck Wood, an Austin attorney, added that while there was no specific prohibition against using TCI products as donor gifts, it didn’t pass his smell test. “You can’t use the prison system as a manufacturer to attract campaign dollars,” said Woods. “I’m sure there are instances where as a token of their appreciation – not necessarily in connection with a fundraiser – that legislators have [given gifts]. I find that very different from what you have described here. This is ‘give me money and I will reward you by using my access to prison industry materials to get you things.’”

Rep. Riddle continued to defend her position, saying she could have had the gifts made elsewhere but “this is my way of helping those guys behind bars earn some money. There are some really fine craftsmen that have made bad decisions.”

The only problem with that reasoning is that most prisoners employed in TCI programs receive no pay for their work – a fact that any Texas legislator should know. Thus, all that Riddle accomplished was to exploit the prison slave labor of those “really fine craftsmen” while using her elected office to reward campaign donors with prisoner-made gifts.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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