Texas election law forbids the use of public resources for political advertising.
But an investigation by the Fort Worth Report found two Tarrant County College Board of Trustee candidates using the college’s email system and logo in their campaigns, despite a warning about electioneering from the college’s legal counsel.
Associate general counsel for TCC, Carol Ware Bracken, sent candidates a letter Jan. 24 reminding candidates of prohibitions against using college resources to electioneer, campaign or politically advertise.
“If you have engaged in (or were planning to engage in) any of the above-listed prohibited activities, you must cease and desist immediately,” Bracken wrote in the January letter. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
Despite the warning, the college district is “not authorized to investigate or address alleged campaign irregularities,” Bracken said in a statement to the Fort Worth Report, citing its status as a receiving entity in elections.
“To the extent a citizen wishes to report an issue with a candidate, that report should be made to the Texas Ethics Commission,” she said.
Incumbent used college email to campaign
Under Texas election code Sec. 255.0031, an officer or employee of a university system who uses its internal email system to distribute political advertising is committing a Class A misdemeanor.
District 4 incumbent trustee Bill Greenhill, an attorney, listed his TCCD email address on his campaign filing.
Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said listing the TCCD email address on its own isn’t necessarily a violation of election code. The violation occurs when an incumbent uses an institution’s email address to communicate with constituents about reelection.
“The critical thing is the distinction between communications with constituents related to the job itself, versus communications with constituents related to a re-election,” Wilson said. “The first is a permissible use of communication channels associated with the institution. The latter would not be. That’s a very clear distinction one has to draw.”
Emails reviewed by the Fort Worth Report show Greenhill communicated with a constituent group through his TCCD email address about attending a luncheon to discuss his candidacy.
Greenhill told the Report that he was unaware that using his college address was against the rules and said he would amend his filing to include a different email address.
“I was just filling in the blanks,” Greenhill said. “What I’ll have to do is amend that and take it off. I’m not sure why I put that there. … I did it unintentionally.”
“Sometimes we non-politicians make mistakes,” Greenhill said.
Challenger used college logo in campaign materials
Greenhill isn’t alone in violating the election code during his campaign.
Jack Reynolds, who filed to run against Greenhill but has since suspended his campaign, displayed the TCCD logo on his campaign website. Use of the logo is restricted for use by the board of trustees, the chancellor’s office, and the offices of the chancellor’s executive leadership team, according to guidance published by the college system.
“The college as an institution is supposed to be neutral with regard to the trustees election,” Wilson said. “Using the college’s official logo in campaign materials suggests that the college, institutionally, has endorsed that campaign. And that’s not supposed to happen.”
Bracken said the college district provided all candidates with information about restrictions on using trademarked and copyrighted materials in their campaigns. In the January letter to candidates, Bracken laid out the reasons why the college district forbids them from using the logos, citing sections 255.004(b) and 255.003 of the election code.
“TCCD cannot, and docs not, give permission for its intellectual property to be used for campaign materials,” Bracken wrote. “…All candidates are directed to remove all TCCD intellectual property (including but not limited to the College logo and seal) from all campaign materials (in whatever form) immediately.”
When reached for comment by the Report, Reynolds denied having received any communications from the college about his use of the logo.
“Wow! You must be seriously bored,” Reynolds said in an email. “I have no comment related to the use of the logo, except to say I never received any communication from TCCD or any representative thereof regarding the use of said logo.”
Reynolds announced April 8 that he was suspending his campaign for District 4. His name still will appear on the ballot for the May 6 election. After the Report reached out regarding use of the college logo on his campaign website April 10, a photo including the logo was removed from the site.
Multiple advisory opinions from the Texas Ethics Commission have reaffirmed that public officers, such as trustees, can’t use government resources for campaigning. A 2019 advisory opinion found that the use of government resources for campaigning that are only accessible to someone by virtue of their public office is a violation of both Texas penal code and election code.
“These statutes do not prohibit a public officer from using government resources that are equally accessible to the public for political advertising,” the commission wrote in its opinion.
Another advisory opinion, from 1992, speaks directly to the use of internal mail by a school official to distribute political advertising. The ethics commission found that the use of school equipment for campaigning, including email servers, would be in violation of election code.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.
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