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COMMENTARY I BY ANDREW WHEAT The Public’s Right to ‘No’ It was as if the Taliban had commandeered Austin’s premiere strip joint: The Texas Ethics Commission, the very state agency created to service the body politic’s right to know, orchestrated a cover up of unknown proportions. The dustup started late last year when beleaguered Texas Employees GOP power brokerBill Ceverha reported in a routine public disclosure filing that he had received a “check” as a gift. Ceverha stopped there, failing to disclose the value of this check. Given that it came from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry Texas’ top political donor who gives Texas Republican PACs and candidates $4 million each electionCeverha’s mystery check could have contained oodles of zeroes. In January, Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission, arguing that Ceverha’s failure to report the amount of that check violated his obligation under Texas law to provide a “description” of any gift worth more than $250. In response to the complaint and a subsequent appeal, the Ethics Commission twice ruled in Ceverha’s favorarguing that public officials need not quantify the gifts they receive. For the Ethics Commission, this was an act of bureaucratic self-negation. Why bother having a disclosure agency that sabotages public disclosure? Fittingly, the Ethics Commission issued these rulings from behind closed doors. On March 23, agency commissioners secretly made their second and final ruling in favor of Ceverha’s nondisclosure. The very next day, they convened a public meeting on the subject. They held this hearing even though the public had yet to learn that the commissioners had just issued a final ruling the day before that made Ceverha mystery money an acceptable “disclosure” standard for cash gifts to Texas officials. The ultimate question addressed at the public meeting: Should the commissioners issue a ruling that clarifies whether public officials must disclose the value of large cash gifts? This question confused government watchdogs, who believed that existing rules already require such disclosure. They saw no need for clarification provided that the commission interprets the existing rules reasonably. Yet the commission now convening this bizarre public discussionbefore the public knew the content of the commission’s newly minted final rulingalready had ruled in favor of Ceverha’s nondisclosure at least once. Such weirdness left people entering the meeting uncertain about how to handle Texas’ ethics czars. Commission Chair Cullen Looney quickly dispelled these doubts. Appointed by House Looney railroaded the meeting. He repeatedly cut off discussions related to Craddick pal Bill Ceverha and even interrupted discussions about what the existing disclosure rules mean. Looney insisted that the sole question before the assembly was whether the commission should attempt to clarify whether public officials must disclose the value of cash gifts? In the Looney mind, this seemed to be a yes-no question utterly divorced from the case that raised the question in the first place. continued on page 20 Ceverha Patrons Beecher! & Perry Gave $1.9 Million To the Politicians Who Appointed Texas’ Ethics Czars Leader Amount from Beercherl & Perry Since 2001 Ethics Commission Appointees Commisioner’s Vote on Gift -Clarification Motion Gov. Perry. $840,000 Ray ‘Tripp’ Davenport R Ross Fischer Tom Harrison David Montagne Against Against For For Lt. Gov. Dewhurst $647,000 Francisco Hernandez Wales Madden III Against Not Present Speaker Craddick. $441,000* Cullen Looney Nicholas Taylor For For TOTALS: $1 928 000 , Motion Failedt Includes contributions to Texans for a Republican Majority and Stars Over Texas, PACs formed respectively to install and maintain Craddick as speaker. t Passage required a supermajority of six votes. APRIL 7, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13