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House Passes Ethics Commission Bill with New Requirements Tacked On

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Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford)
Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford).

A sunset bill for the Texas Ethics Commission tentatively passed through the House Monday evening, with a few ethics reform bills tacked on as amendments.

Senate Bill 219 would have made minor changes to the agency as part of a once-every-12-years sunset review process, but on the House floor today it became a vehicle for amendments requiring Railroad Commissioners to resign from the position if they decided to run for other offices; mandating that lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms are posted online (without their home addresses); requiring that 501(c)(4) nonprofits report their donors if they get involved in Texas elections, and requiring legislators and their families to report any government contracts in which they hold more than a 50-percent stake.

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) sought to move the Public Integrity Unit out from the Travis County district attorney’s office and place under the state attorney general’s office. Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), in 2007, and Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington), in 2011, tried the same move, to bring the unit under the typically Republican-controlled attorney general’s office.

Oversight of the Public Integrity Unit, which investigates public officials for ethical misconduct, has become increasingly political over the past decade. While every district attorney in the state has authority to investigate public officials, the DA in heavily Democratic Travis County is the only one that gets state funding to do so.

King said today that the unit violates laws requiring a separation of the executive branch and judicial branch by putting both powers under the Travis County DA’s office. While the DA’s office gets statewide jurisdiction, King noted that only a small percentage of Texas voters—about 4 percent—get to decide who heads the Public Integrity Unit. King has also kept up a steady drumbeat this session calling for Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign in light of her jail sentence for drunk driving.

Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) pointed out that two of the cases under investigation by the PIU are against employees inside the attorney general’s office, creating a conflict if the Public Integrity Unit moved there.

“I just think we’re stepping in a place where we don’t need to go,” Geren said.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) reminded the House from the back mic that under the Travis County DA’s office the PIU has been very successful in prosecuting misconduct.

“Are you aware that in just the last six years the PIU has obtained more than 680 convictions and obtained court orders for more than $11.8 million in restitution?” he asked.

Lawmakers voted to table the amendment, but some Republicans didn’t let King’s first amendment go down without a fight—almost an hour after it was killed, a few members requested a re-vote.

“I don’t think there was any misunderstanding about how you voted,” Geren said, in protest. “We have a district attorney that screwed up and got arrested for DWI, I think she should resign, but that doesn’t have anything to do,” he said, with the Public Integrity Unit’s operations.

Eventually it was determined the amendment could not be brought back up, but King did manage to pass an amendment requiring a study of whether the PIU’s place under the Travis County DA’s office is legal.

SB 219 still has to make it through a final vote in the House and a conference committee of House and Senate members before it makes its way to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk.