Above: The Sam Houston State Office Building houses the State Ethics Commission offices.
In the words of Fred Lewis, an attorney who advocates for campaign finance reform, the Texas Ethics Commission is not just toothless, but gumless—a shell agency that makes a mockery of good government. And that’s by design. The Ethics Commission was created and is funded by the very people it’s supposed to police: our legislators.
Examples of the agency’s weakness aren’t hard to come by, but try this one out: The commission has apparently never formally asked the Travis County district attorney to investigate a case. (The Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit is charged with criminal investigations of state officials, most famously indicting former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.)
In a tough-on-crime state, it’s the politicians who enjoy a peculiar lack of enforcement and policing—largely thanks to the Ethics Commission.
The big busts of corrupt politicians in recent years have happened with little help from the Ethics Commission. Instead, the agency has focused on trifling technical violations that have drawn the ire of lawmakers. It’s the equivalent of a cop busting jaywalkers while a nearby bank is robbed.
Take the case of former state Rep. Kino Flores, a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley known to contractors as “Mr. 10 Percent” for his habit of skimming off the top of government contracts. Flores was eventually the target of 59 allegations of misconduct and was convicted in 2010 of ethics violations. During its investigation of Flores, a Travis County grand jury expressed “outrage” at the vagueness of state ethics law. In a letter, the jurors excoriated what they termed “loopholes and vagueness which seem to be common for self-serving legislative laws and codes.”
The jurors specifically cited the opaqueness of the personal financial disclosures filed by elected officials. In Flores’ case, the Ethics Commission allowed him to declare himself a “consultant,” without listing who or what he was consulting for. There is no record of the Ethics Commission ever investigating Flores.
Lax ethics laws also plagued the case of former state Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, who in 2010 got caught double-dipping on travel reimbursements. Jay Root, then a reporter with the Associated Press, noticed the duplications on state and campaign travel records. Driver’s initial defense was that the Ethics Commission told him it was all good. Watchdog groups pointed out that lack of vigilance on the part of the Ethics Commission could lead to rampant abuse by lawmakers.
Because of the confidentiality rule, it’s not known whether the Ethics Commission was investigating Driver, and since House travel records before mid-2005 were already destroyed at the time of Driver’s confession, it was impossible to know how much Driver earned by getting reimbursed twice for the same expenses. Driver admitted to double-dipping for years.
Since former Travis County DA Ronnie Earle nailed former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on money-laundering charges, lawmakers have tried several times, unsuccessfully, to strip the Public Integrity Unit of its funding or authority.
Some board members of the Ethics Commission, perhaps feeling upstaged, suggested in November that the commission take over the Public Integrity Unit’s job. Luckily these proposals have gone nowhere, thanks in part to public outrage.
This legislative session, lawmakers have a golden opportunity to fix the Ethics Commission. The agency is up for sunset review, the once-every-12-years process of reforming state agencies.
Several watchdog groups have proposed that the Ethics Commission create an enforcement director position with the power to execute real investigations. Unfortunately, the sunset staff didn’t adopt that recommendation. But there are other ideas for reform.
Legislators could pump more money into the commission’s stagnant budget, so the agency could, for example, hire more staff with law enforcement backgrounds. They could also clarify the law to allow for sharing of information with law enforcement agencies. Finally, they could empower the executive director to sign off on subpoenas and other investigatory tools without requiring the Ethics Commission board—political appointees, all—to approve them.
Is it too much to hope that lawmakers will shine more light on their own dealings in the murky world of money and politics? Perhaps. Both Republicans and Democrats talk a good game about transparency and disclosure; it’s up to us to make them live up to it.