A Dog Not Allowed to Hunt

On April 24 the Sunset Advisory Commission will hold a public hearing as part of its review of the dysfunctional Texas Ethics Commission. The TEC was formed after a wave of scandals in the late eighties and early nineties. Among them were free-spending lobbyists collectively lavishing millions on wining and dining legislators, Chicken King Bo Pilgrim handing out $10,000 “campaign contributions” on the Senate floor, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams lending his campaign millions in an attempt to buy office. The call for reform was strong, but as is so often the case, the actual legislation enacted was not.

Certainly some of the more egregious practices were banned: Lobbyists can’t spend more than $50 per day on an individual legislator; businessmen can no longer dish out money in the legislative chambers proper. But the big disappointment of the 1991 session was the Ethics Commission. Born deliberately hobbled, 10 years later it’s a halfway decent clearinghouse for records, but it has been a dismal failure as an enforcer of campaign laws.

According to a report by Campaigns for People, the TEC has never initiated an investigation, never audited a candidate’s campaign records, never made a criminal referral, and never subpoenaed a witness or a document. In its entire existence it has held only one formal public enforcement action, and on a minor matter at that. It’s not surprising the TEC is moribund, since in order to initiate an enforcement action, six of the eight members of the commission must vote in favor. Environmental Defense’s Jim Marston (a T.O. board member) was one of the first commissioners on the TEC, but after several years of frustration, he stepped down. “I saw this as a chance to fundamentally change the state from one run by a bunch of good old boys to one where we actually can have good government,” he recalls. “But a number of commissioners saw their jobs as protecting the institution that appointed them.”

The problems don’t stop there. In order to shield those under investigation, the entire enforcement process is confidential, unless the information is already public or a formal hearing is held, which almost never happens. What’s worse, a breach of confidentiality on the part of the TEC staff can bring a more severe penalty–a Class A Misdemeanor–than a violation of the ethics law itself. The result is to stymie the staff, who refuse to conduct interviews for fear of breaching the confidentiality provision.

As Texans for Public Justice demonstrated in a recent report, campaign loans continue to be abused by candidates. Politicians take out loans, often from themselves, to finance their campaigns and then once in office shake down special interests (for up to $250,000 for statewide candidates and $500,000 for governor) to pay them off. Ten years ago, the Ethics Commission was charged with recommending repayment limits for legislative candidates, but it never followed through. Another of the TEC’s duties was to suggest salary increases for the legislators, which it also failed to do.

Campaigns for People is urging a number of necessary reforms, such as letting staff initiate investigations, eliminating the confidentiality provisions, instituting random audits, removing the board from enforcement actions, and increasing the budget. The Sunset Commission’s preliminary report echoes some of this, although it does not go far enough. “We both agree that the car does not run,” says Fred Lewis, president of Campaigns for People. “The difference is that they think it needs a tune-up and I think it needs a new engine.” –JB

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Published at 12:00 am CST