illustration by Darren Thompson
Joan Covici is a widowed, retired schoolmarm on a fixed income. The 77-year-old lives in a Lake Highlands house she bought in 1957 for $16,000, not updated since. It’s valued today at $157,000. Covici drives an 8-year-old Volkswagen Passat. She subsists on her husband’s Social Security.

But if Covici is indeed the woman of limited means she appears to be on paper, how is it that she turned up in a Texas Ethics Commission filing as the biggest cash donor to Dallas State Rep. Terri Hodge’s legal defense fund? The mandatory filings show that Covici gave $150,000 of the $200,000 Hodge raised in 2008. Hodge stands indicted for allegedly accepting thousands in rent and utilities from Dallas low-income housing development king Brian Potashnik while politically backing apartment projects like the one in which she ended up living. Trial is tentatively set for later this month.

It would of course be illegal to cloak the true source of donations behind someone else’s name. No one has accused Covici of fronting for a moneybags benefactor. So why would a retired teacher who lives simply on a fixed income step up for Hodge with a donation that by far dwarfs all of Hodge’s re-election contributions combined? Covici, along with her intended beneficiaries, Hodge, and Hodge’s Fort Worth defense lawyer, had all clammed up—until now. In an interview, Covici swears she’s the only source of the cash and even put up her own house as collateral.

“Of course it’s my money,” says Covici, a self-styled civil rights activist who once served as a volunteer for the local ACLU branch. “I just couldn’t stand by and see someone that stressed over money. I had to come forward. I had the money. I wasn’t using it.”

Covici, an advocate for state prison inmates she adopts as social charity cases, found common cause and a friend in Hodge during the 1990s. Their paths intersected because Hodge is herself an often abrasive hands-on system overseer who routinely intervenes with wardens on behalf of prisoners like Covici’s pen pals. Covici says she came to Hodge’s aid because the legislator would be more valuable outside the prison system rather than inside it.

“I don’t want to lose her as a representative,” Covici explains. “She’s the only one who calls wardens and gets the little things done that might not mean much to most people but which mean everything to the guys.”

A hundred thousand of Covici’s money, she says, is the fruit of Vanguard mutual fund investments made with various savings and proceeds from her husband’s 1997 death. Covici insists Hodge never twisted her arm for money but did let her friends know she needed a lot of it. When Hodge indicated the $100,000 wasn’t enough, Covici took out a $50,000 home equity loan on her house. She says Hodge is going to pay her back. Now, that’s a friend.