Claims made in a widely-shared 2018 meme about the personal and family history of Congressman Beto O'Rourke are accurate.
Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas came to national prominence in 2018 through his high-profile campaign to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. senator Ted Cruz. During the course of his campaign, the Democratic candidate has been confronted with various claims and allegations about himself and his family. One such meme, entitled “‘Beto’ Reality Check,” was shared widely on Facebook in August 2018:
A spokesperson for O’Rourke’s campaign described the meme as “factually incorrect in countless ways” and largely referred us to several existing news reports about the allegations. The following is our breakdown of the five sections contained in the meme.
O’Rourke adopted the name “Beto” to appeal to Latino voters: FALSE
The meme claimed:
“Robert O’Rourke” became “Beto” for his political campaigns and on the ballot, a tactic that gives the false impression he’s Latino, misleading voters in a state with many Hispanics.
In fact, O’Rourke was known as “Beto” long before he entered political life, although his birth name is Robert and he appears to use both first names interchangeably. (For example, his July 2018 Federal Election Commission “Statement of Candidacy” lists his name as “Robert Beto O’Rourke.”)
O’Rourke told CNN that his parents referred to him as Beto “from day one,” and that it “just stuck.” Others have noted that the name is likely derived from a pronunciation of the Spanish “Roberto,” and O’Rourke himself described it as “a nickname for Robert in El Paso.” (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 78 percent of El Paso county residents listed themselves as being of Mexican heritage in 2016.)
O’Rourke’s family is of Irish heritage. According to the New York Times, his family “came over from Ireland four generations ago to work on the railroad.” His father Pat O’Rourke was a prominent El Paso County official during the 1980s.
A 1986 article about Pat O’Rourke in the El Paso Times referred to his then 14-year-old son as “Beto O’Rourke.” In 1999, six years before O’Rourke ran for El Paso city council, the same newspaper referred to “web site designer Beto O’Rourke” in a short article about his I.T. business Stanton Street Design.
After checking the archives of the El Paso Times, we found multiple references to “Beto O’Rourke” between 1986 and 2004, when O’Rourk was either a child or a businessman and had never run for political office.
In March, the campaign of O’Rourke’s Republican opponent, Ted Cruz, launched a radio jingle that poked fun at the name “Beto” and included the following lyrics: “I remember reading stories/Liberal Robert wanted to fit in/So he changed his name to ‘Beto’/And hid it with a grin …”:
FIRST LISTEN: our new 60-second statewide radio ad introducing our liberal opponent, Congressman Robert O’Rourke, to Texas voters.
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) March 7, 2018
The next day, O’Rourke posted a photograph of himself as a young boy, wearing a sweater with the nickname “Beto” stitched into it, establishing that, contrary to false accusation, he did not “change his name” for political reasons:
— Beto O’Rourke (@BetoORourke) March 7, 2018
O’Rourke used his father’s connections to avoid trial for two felonies: UNPROVEN
The meme claimed:
FELONY ARREST RECORD
As an adult in his mid-20s, O’Rourke was caught breaking into the University of Texas El Paso. Charged with breaking and entering and burglary, he mysteriously avoided trial. A few years later, arrested for drunk driving, he again walked with a “deal.” Being the song of a powerful, politically connected County Judge apparently has benefits. O’Rourke dismisses his felony convictions as “youthful pranks” and “mistakes”; it’s old news, move along, nothing to see here.
O’Rourke has indeed been arrested for burglary and drunk driving, a history which he has discussed several times over the course of his political career, as his spokesperson told us: “While charges were dismissed, this is something that Beto has always publicly addressed — during his initial run for the city council, his run for Congress, in profiles written about him, during dozens of interviews, and at town halls across the state during this campaign.”
In a 27 August 2018 op-ed for the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, O’Rourke himself wrote:
Twenty-three years ago I was arrested for attempted forcible entry after jumping a fence at the University of Texas at El Paso. I spent a night in the El Paso County Jail, was able to make bail the next day, and was released. Three years later, I was arrested for drunk driving — a far more serious mistake for which there is no excuse.
According to El Paso county jail records, O’Rourke was arrested for attempted burglary on 19 May 1995, when he was 22 years old. He was released from custody the same day. Court records show that the prosecutor dropped the charge in February 1996.
O’Rourke was also arrested for driving while intoxicated on 27 September 1998, the day after his 26th birthday. He completed a “misdemeanor diversion program” (namely “DWI school”) in October 1999, and the charge was dropped.
In August 2018, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News cited police reports, including a witness account, which suggested that the incident leading to O’Rourke’s DWI arrest was relatively serious and involved a collision with another vehicle and a possible attempt by O’Rourke to leave the scene:
State and local police reports obtained by the Chronicle and Express-News show that O’Rourke was driving drunk at what a witness called “a high rate of speed” in a 75 mph zone on Interstate 10 about a mile from the New Mexico border. He lost control and hit a truck, sending his car careening across the center median into oncoming lanes. The witness, who stopped at the scene, later told police that O’Rourke had tried to drive away from the scene. O’Rourke recorded a 0.136 and 0.134 on police breathalyzers, above a blood-alcohol level of 0.10, the state legal limit at the time.
In the case of his DWI arrest, O’Rourke did not face prison time because he completed an alternative adjudication program. It’s not clear why the attempted burglary charge was dropped in 1996 (we asked the O’Rourke campaign about this but didn’t receive a response to that particular question in time for publication). However, we could find no evidence that O’Rourke’s father had any role in either case, nor did the meme offer any evidence.
Congressman O’Rourke’s father Pat was the El Paso County judge until 1986 — a kind of chief executive of the county’s governing body, the Commissioners Court — so he had not held office for nine years by the time of his son’s attempted burglary arrest.
O’Rourke violated ‘insider trading’ laws: MIXTURE
The meme claimed:
INSIDER TRADING VIOLATIONS
After being sent a memo specifically prohibiting investment in Twitter’s IPO [initial public offering], O’Rourke made a tidy one-day profit on it. When uncovered by a government watchdog, he quickly turned himself in. This violation of the STOCK Act (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) is apparently a habit, as there are several other instances of this behavior; he characterizes them as mistakes.
Despite the meme’s claim, O’Rourke has never been charged with, or convicted of, violating any laws related to insider trading, including the STOCK Act, which bars members of the U.S. Congress from benefiting from financial transactions made on the basis of information they received in their capacity as members of Congress.
But this section of the meme does contain elements of truth in that — after the matter was brought to light by a third party — O’Rourke reported his potential violation of rules to the House Ethics Committee (for stock transactions he maintained were executed by his broker without his knowledge), and the matter was resolved without any charges being brought against him:
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke alerted the House Ethics Committee that he might have violated a new law restricting members of Congress from engaging in certain stock transactions.
It is the first case to come before the committee involving a 2012 law that prohibits members of Congress from participating in initial public offerings, or IPOs, “other than what is available to members of the public generally,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Committee for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, a watchdog group.
O’Rourke, a Democrat whose district covers a portion of western Texas, reported the possible violation after Legistorm, an online news site that tracks congressional issues, informed him that his Nov. 15 disclosure saying he participated in the Twitter IPO earlier in the month might indicate a violation of a 2012 law called the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or STOCK Act.
The freshman congressman also reported that, through his stockbroker, he participated in six other initial public offerings this year. In an interview, O’Rourke said he didn’t see a Nov. 5 memo from the House Ethics Committee warning members of Congress about participating in IPOs.
On 27 November 2013, O’Rourke wrote on Facebook that the ethics committee had informed him they would consider the issue resolved once he sold off any remaining shares that he bought during any IPOs, and sent the U.S. Treasury a check equal to the amount he earned in profits from those IPO-related shares:
Upon receiving the letter from the Committee today I instructed my broker to sell all remaining shares, which he did. I then sent a check for the full amount of the profit from all IPO trades this year to the U.S. Treasury by overnight mail. Copies of the trades and the check have been sent to the Ethics Committee.
I apologize to the House of Representatives and to the people I represent for not exercising due diligence. I will be much more thorough in the future concerning financial transactions and do my best to ensure that I am in full compliance with all rules covering members of Congress.
Records filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives show that O’Rourke bought between $1,000 and $15,000 worth of shares in Twitter on 7 November 2013 (the first day the company was traded on the stock market), before selling off between $1,000 and $15,000 in shares later that day.
Records also indicate that on 27 November 2013, O’Rourke again sold off between $1,000 and $15,000 worth of Twitter shares “pursuant to the recommendations made by House Ethics Committee in a letter from 11/27/13.”
A condom full of “white powder” was found in O’Rourke’s father’s car: MOSTLY TRUE
The meme claimed:
FATHER’S DRUG SCANDAL
O’Rourke’s father, while county judge, had a 2-way radio installed in his Jeep. Installers discovered a condom packed with a “white powder” concealed in his vehicle and called police. Much to the dismay of investigating officers, the Captain on duty, a friend and political ally of O’Rourke, flushed the evidence down the toilet and dropped the charges. The Captain was subsequently suspended and tried for tampering with evidence.
This section of the meme relates to incidents which took place in 1983, when Beto O’Rourke was 10 years old, and which had absolutely nothing to do with him.
Nevertheless, it’s true that in February 1983, El Paso County Sheriff’s Captain Willie Hill told two police officers to get rid of a condom full of white powder which they had found in Pat O’Rourke’s car while they were installing a radio in it. The officers suspected the powder to be heroin or cocaine, but the substance was never tested to determine its true nature.
Hill was temporarily suspended but was reinstated after being acquitted on a misdemeanor charge of evidence tampering. (The prosecutor had earlier dropped a charge of misconduct against him.) Hill testified that he made a snap decision about the discovery of the powder, which he strongly suspected had been planted there to embarrass or undermine either O’Rourke or one of the officers installing the radio.
O’Rourke and Hill were friends, as O’Rourke (then county judge) told the El Paso Times: “Because he’s a good man, it would be an injustice if Willie were to suffer grievous consequences from this whole episode. You have an honest and honorable man implicated by pure fluke. And that’s just damn right not fair.”
O’Rourke was involved in a family business that was prosecuted for tax violations: MIXTURE
The meme claimed:
FAMILY BUSINESS FEDERALLY PROSECUTED
O’Rourke’s family business “Charlotte’s Furniture,” a store “Beto,” his mother and sister are involved with, was charged in 2010 with altering records to avoid IRS reporting. Investigators found they accepted cash payments, in one instance over $630,000 from an unnamed individual (that’s a LOT of furniture)! Found guilty on 15 counts, the sentence was a $250,000 fine and 5 years’ probation. Around the time O’Rourke announced as a senate candidate, the business was shuttered and its records became unavailable. O’Rourke passes the prosecution off as a “mistake”; it’s been covered, move along, nothing to see here.
The meme got the basic facts right about the federal tax case against Charlotte’s, but it falsely claimed that Congressman O’Rourke was personally “involved” in the company. He was not.
In 2010, Charlotte’s Inc., an El Paso furniture store company started by O’Rourke’s grandmother in 1951, was convicted of “structuring transactions to evade reporting requirements, a tax-related felony. The company was charged as a corporate entity, but the Congressman’s mother, Melissa O’Rourke, acted as its authorized representative.
The company pled guilty to accusations that it had restructured transactions in order to present relatively large cash payments as having been made in installments of less than $10,000. Anti-money laundering provisions of U.S. law require that a business reveal the identity of any individual who makes a cash payment above that threshold.
In total, Charlotte’s and its employees illegally restructured $630,000 in payments, all from one customer, in this way between May 2005 and October 2006. The identity of that customer is not known. U.S. District Court judge Kathleen Cardone gave a sentence of five years’ probation and a $500,000 fine, with $250,000 of that suspended.
In 2017, Melissa O’Rourke announced that she intended to close down the business but denied the decision was connected to her son’s U.S. Senate campaign or the 2010 conviction.
According to Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts records for 2017, Congressman O’Rourke had no formal role with Charlotte’s Inc., whose directors were Melissa O’Rourke and the Congressman’s sister Charlotte O’Rourke.
Records for 2005 and 2006 (when the I.R.S. reporting violations took place) as well as 2010 (when the conviction happened) show that Congressman O’Rourke had no formal role with the company at those times, either.
The Congressman is part owner of the property where Charlotte’s was located. According to O’Rourke’s 2013 congressional financial disclosure, his mother gifted him an ownership stake worth between $1 million and $5 million in Peppertree Square, a shopping center on North Mesa St. in El Paso.
However, his part ownership of the Peppertree Square property (which does not appear to entail any management function in any of the businesses located there) did not accrue until 31 December 2012, more than six years after the conclusion of the I.R.S. reporting violations at Charlotte’s.
Correction [4 September 2018]: This article has been updated to more accurately describe the role of El Paso County judge.