In the spring of 2002, the Observer ran an editorial about the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) called “A Dog Not Allowed to Hunt.” It talked about how the agency was born hobbled, unwilling and unable to enforce campaign laws. Four years of Republican leadership later, if anything, the TEC has become a fortified obstacle to exposing and eliminating corruption in state government. Texas’ Republican leaders seem intent on whistling past a political graveyard that has already claimed Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Ralph Reed.
On September 19, staff at the TEC released a draft opinion meant to clarify a controversy that has been brewing since last January when campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice (TPJ) lodged a complaint against Bill Ceverha, a board member of the Employee Retirement System, a $19-billion dollar state employee pension fund. Ceverha was also treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority, the Tom DeLay-led political action committee that engineered the Republican capture of the statehouse in 2002, but landed in the dock for campaign violations in the process. Ceverha himself was successfully sued for his role in TRMPAC, a judgment that forced him into bankruptcy. TPJ discovered an entry in Ceverha’s public disclosure form filed with the TEC that identified a gift from GOP mega-donor and Houston homebuilder Bob Perry simply as a “check,” but failed to disclose the amount. Eventually, under media pressure, Perry acknowledged that he had given $100,000 to Ceverha to help defray legal costs arising out of TRMPAC. Nonetheless, in September the TEC staff recommended that commissioners issue an opinion that state officials don’t have to declare the value of cash gifts over $250.
The GOP-appointed commissioners were all set to ratify that perspective until Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle jumped into the fray. Earle sent a letter stating that the proposed rule “would have the effect of eroding the trust placed in this Commission to promote public confidence in electoral and government processes.” The commission then decided to postpone its decision until after the election.
The TRMPAC case further illustrates the commission’s weakness. In 1998—four years before TRMPAC spent a dime of its corporate money—an anonymous individual requested a ruling from the agency on whether a PAC that just happened to fit TRMPAC’s circumstances could legally spend corporate money. The agency’s answer, issued in a draft opinion, was a flat “no.” That apparently wasn’t what the anonymous petitioner wanted to hear. He or she withdrew the request and slunk away. The commission never issued a final—and precedent setting—opinion and let the matter drop, leaving groups like TRMPAC free to argue that the ethics commission has never actually ruled on the matter. The agency, to this day, refuses to reveal who asked for that draft opinion.
Meanwhile, a number of Republican state reps are angrily declaring that they’ve done nothing illegal by using campaign contributions to rent second homes from their spouses. The rent-from-your-wife dodge works like this: A state rep buys a condo in Austin and puts the title in his wife’s name. She pays the mortgage and he pays rent to her that happens to equal the mortgage. The money he uses comes from his campaign account that is regularly replenished by lobbyists who want specific legislation from the state rep. While the TEC is investigating the matter, don’t hold your breath.
“This is just symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the commission,” says Fred Lewis, who has campaigned to strengthen the TEC for years. “It’s really simple: They already have plenty of authority to pass regulations or interpret existing statutes.”
If only they would.