Houston Official Under Fire for Using Hurricane-Relief Donations as Promotional T-shirts
Hurricane Harvey, one of the strongest hurricanes in modern history, caused 107 deaths and inflicted around $125 billion in damage as it made its way from the Caribbean and Latin America to the U.S. mainland from mid-August to early-September of 2017. In Texas alone, 336,000 people were left without power and tens of thousands were rescued and displaced.
Such widespread devastation required the efforts of countless responders and volunteers, as well as donations of money, food and clothing from all around the country. The recovery effort took shape quickly, and though it will likely take years for life to return to normal, things have managed to quiet down for now.
Houston and its surrounding metropolitan area were some of the hardest hit locations in the U.S., with many areas receiving at least 30 inches of precipitation. This led to massive flooding, countless rescues, and, of course, aid and assistance from thousands of volunteers and empathetic donors.
As it turns out, however, some of these donations never made it to people in need.
A church in Harris County, the seat of which is Houston, received at least 10 boxes of dri-fit shirts as a donation intended for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Instead of relieving folks whose lives had been devastated by the storm, the boxes sat unused for months.
Enter Christopher Diaz, Constable of Harris County Precinct 2. Apparently, Diaz and his staff thought it would be OK to print the constable’s name and badge on the shirts, alongside a few logos for a church and two local trade unions. Then, Diaz reportedly tossed the shirts from a moving vehicle to a crowd at Jacinto City’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
Needless to say, people were quick to point out that this situation looked a lot like political advertising by way of promotional T-shirts. Not only that, but it was also discovered that Lt. Kimberly Bellotte, a member of Diaz’s command staff, sent an on-duty, uniformed deputy to drop the boxes of shirts off at a printer in Jersey Village, 30 or so miles away from Precinct 2 headquarters in Pasadena.
Constable's use of Hurricane Harvey donations draws scrutiny https://t.co/VKxX8C9O5e
— KHOU 11 News Houston (@KHOU) May 3, 2018
According to KHOU 11’s report, the Texas Ethics Commission will likely be looking into the issue by interviewing Diaz to determine whether or not the donations-turned-promotional-T-shirts can be considered political advertising. If they are, Diaz could be in major trouble, as he failed to list the promotional T-shirts and printing costs in his latest campaign finance filing as in-kind campaign contributions.
In response, Diaz explained his side. “You know, maybe we could,” he said. “At a time like that when there’s devastation, you know, you just have to make split decisions and do the best you can. … Sometimes when you’re under a challenge and you have to make decisions, you just have to go with it.”
Considering Hurricane Harvey took place months before the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Jacinto City, and keeping in mind the fact that a political campaign doesn’t even come close to the definition of disaster relief, these erroneously-utilized promotional T-shirts could lead to some actual devastation—to Diaz’s career, that is.
Whatever happens, it’s important to note here that states are looking very closely at how political campaigns utilize and procure promotional products. In Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin has introduced an executive order designed to curb state agency spending on promotional products, while Wisconsin's Attorney General came under fire last Sept. for spending more than $80,000 on items such as messenger bags, pistol cases and fortune cookies in support of his political campaign.
In such an intensely observed environment, politicians have to ensure that their promotional products not only follow the proper laws and guidelines, but also that they come from a reputable source and not, for instance, from donations intended for hurricane victims.