West Texas Pastor Who Used Illegal Donations From Churches to Campaign for Office Is Fined $3,500

A West Texas pastor who used his parish’s resources to campaign for office and several pastors from other churches who donated to him were fined after the state’s ethics commission determined that each violated election law.

The fines, some of which were issued last month, are the latest sanction from the commission following reporting from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, which revealed that three churches donated to the campaign of Scott Beard, founding pastor at Fountaingate Fellowship church, despite state and federal prohibitions on such activity.

Beard, who was fined $3,500, showed a “lack of good faith” in accepting the donations and in posting campaign signs on church property for his unsuccessful Abilene City Council race despite the commission’s warnings against doing so, it found.

“Because the respondent committed extensive corporate contribution violations in defiance of the applicable law, a substantial penalty is required,” the commission wrote about Beard. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The commission separately fined the pastor of Hope 4 Life Church, Bruce Tentzer, $200. Tentzer purchased a ticket to Beard’s fundraising dinner with funds from the parish, also known as Hope Chapel Foursquare Church. He told the commission the money was drawn from a special church fund set aside for his personal use.

Those actions come after the ethics commission on Dec. 21, 2023, ordered Dewey Hall, pastor of Fountaingate Merkel Church, to pay $400 for donating from church coffers to Beard’s campaign. In an interview, Hall said that he does not believe in the separation of church and state, but that his church would not donate to a political candidate again. No fines appear on the commission’s website related to Remnant Church, the third parish to give Beard campaign money. Remnant representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Kristin Postell, an Abilene attorney who filed a complaint with the commission about Beard’s actions, said she was pleased with the fines levied against him. Given the severity of his actions, she believed the churches should pay less than him. But Postell said such low fines are not sufficient deterrents for violators.

“I don’t think anybody is going to be super cautious about following the rules unless there is a real financial burden to breaking them,” Postell said.

Under state law, violations are punishable by up to $5,000, or triple the amount at issue, whichever is greater, and a third-degree felony charge. (No criminal charges were brought in these cases.) J.R. Johnson, the commission’s executive director, declined to comment and did not answer questions about whether the fines were sufficient.

Roger Borgelt, an Austin lawyer who provides ethics advice to political candidates, said the stigma of being found in violation of the law is often a bigger deterrent than the fines themselves.

“The ethics commission, in terms of its practical function, as a deterrent, has been more to provide campaign fodder than anything else,” he said.

It’s unclear if Beard or the churches will face any additional sanctions. Abilene residents filed complaints with the IRS accusing Beard’s church of illegally campaigning. An IRS spokesperson declined to comment, saying that federal law prohibits the agency from confirming or denying investigations.

The federal agency can strip churches of their tax-exempt status for violating a federal law banning all nonprofits from engaging in political activity, but there has been only one public example of such a revocation.