Arson is suspected in a fire that swept through the historic Texas Governor's Mansion in June 2008 and left much of the 152-year-old home charred and severely damaged.
With the state facing a budget shortfall of at least $11 billion, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent almost $600,000 in public money during the past two years to live in a sprawling rental home in the hills above the capital, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
It costs more than $10,000 a month in rent, utilities and upkeep to house Perry in a five-bedroom, seven-bath mansion that has pecan-wood floors, a gourmet kitchen and three dining rooms. Perry has also spent $130,000 in campaign donations to throw parties, buy food and drink, and pay for cable TV and a host of other services since he moved in, the records show.
The public spending on Perry's rental comes as the state grapples with a budget shortfall forecast to reach at least $11 billion over the next two years. Perry has asked state agencies to cut their budgets by 5 percent and the Republican House speaker has begun to consider furloughs and shortened workweeks for state employees.
Ethics watchdogs, meanwhile, say Perry's campaign may have violated state disclosure laws because of the vague way he's reported what his staff calls "incidental" spending at the mansion.
"Anybody who is not offended probably doesn't know what's going on," said Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, the Texas House Democratic leader. To spend so much while asking state agencies to spend less, Dunnam said, is "just rank hypocrisy."
Perry dismissed such criticism with a laugh when asked by the AP about the costs of living in the exclusive Barton Creek Estates neighborhood in West Austin: "If that's the best cut anybody's got of leadership in the state of Texas, then bring it on."
Texas' longest-serving governor moved into his temporary home in the fall of 2007, leaving the white columned, two-story governor's mansion so it could undergo repairs. A still-unsolved arson wrecked the 1856 residence less than a year later, and officials say it will take another two years to finish its reconstruction.
His 6,386-square-foot rental sits on more than three acres and was advertised in 2007 for sale at $1.85 million. Perry's state-paid expenses at the home include $18,000 for "consumables" such as household supplies and cleaning products, $1,001.46 in window coverings from upscale retailer Neiman Marcus, a $1,000 "emergency repair" of the governor's filtered ice machine, a $700 clothes rack, and a little over $70 for a two year subscription to Food & Wine Magazine.
Maintenance on the heated pool has cost taxpayers at least $8,400, and the tab for grounds and lawn maintenance has topped $44,000, the records show. All told, taxpayers have spent at least $592,000 for rent, utilities, repairs, furnishings and supplies since Perry moved in.
By comparison, the Texas governor's mansion is wholly owned by the state -- there is no rent or mortgage to pay. As currently configured, it has about 9,900 total square feet, but most is public space packed with historic artifacts. Only 2,750 square feet is dedicated to the governor's residence.
Democratic critics have said Perry and his wife, Anita, could live in a downtown apartment while the mansion is under repair. Should he win in November, Democrat Bill White, the former Houston mayor and multimillionaire lawyer challenging Perry's bid for a third full term, told the AP he would rent his own home until the mansion is repaired.
The records detailing the amount of public money spent on Perry's temporary home came from the governor's office, the State Preservation Board and the Texas Facilities Commission, and were obtained by the AP through the Texas Public Information Act. Perry's office is still fighting the release of at least 10 e-mails about his temporary residence.
The governor's staff said Perry, who earns $150,000 a year as governor, has cut back on some luxuries in response to the state's tight finances. Spokeswoman Allison Castle said he has just one housekeeper, one full-time chef -- although a second chef works part time -- and a mansion administrator who left and was not replaced. Along with a steward, the salaries for the five mansion employees cost taxpayers $195,770 a year, records show. The governor's security detail occupies the guest house.
Castle also said Perry and his wife lessen the burden on taxpayers by using campaign funds to pay for their expenses and reimburse the fund for their own food. For the 28 months from September 2007 through the end of 2009, the campaign-funded "Mansion Fund" has incurred costs of over $130,000, including more than $56,000 for food and beverages. Thousands more were spent on flowers, tent set-ups and other rentals, the cable bill, invitations and unspecified "services."
That spending tops more than $810,000 in all since Perry took office in 2001.
"These are non-taxpayer dollars that go for entertaining and various costs that a governor's residence would have," said Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner. "These are the same policies that were implemented for numerous governors before Rick Perry."
Perry's aides add the governor, who has made officeholder transparency a signature issue of his 2010 campaign, has fully complied with ethics and transparency laws that govern such spending.
But Perry's state disclosure reports describe the $810,000 directed to the "Mansion Fund" generically as "Mansion Expenditures," despite state requirements that recipients of political dollars be listed by name along with a description of the goods or services they provide.
"It's a fact question on a case by case basis to determine whether the actual payee has been disclosed," said Tim Sorrells, the deputy general counsel at the Texas Ethics Commission.
Sorrells stressed that he could not specifically speak about Perry's report. But ethics watchdog Fred Lewis, an Austin lawyer and activist who for years has urged the Legislature to tighten political disclosure rules, said Perry's reports may not comply with the law.
"When you do not describe who the payee is, and do not describe what the services or goods are, it's impossible for anybody to know whether the expenditures comply with the law or whether it is an expenditure for something that the public would like or dislike," Lewis said.