in Houston, Texas
Texas Ethics Commission report disappoints some good government activists
Monday, Apr 09, 2012, 03:58PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Texas Republic seal

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission will not recommend the state Ethics Commission become an enforcement agency for the state’s ethics rules, a bitter disappointment to those who have for years called for the reform.

Representatives for 10 public interest groups reacted sharply to the recommendations made in the Advisory Commission’s report to the state Legislature. They include the heads of Texans for Public Justice, Public Citizen and Common Cause.

You can find the entire list in this letter sent to the Sunset Advisory Commission.

The report is expected to be discussed during the Commission’s regularly scheduled meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Room E1.036 of the Capitol Extension in Austin.

“It is time for Texas to get tough on political crimes, stop protecting the politicians and treat the ethics commission as if it were just another professional regulatory agency,” Fred Lewis of Texans Together Education Fund, said in a press release from the group of activists.

Lewis, a former assistant attorney general, is one of the state’s foremost experts on the Ethics Commission. “The commission should have the authority to take enforcement actions and hear complaints without needing to check in with a board of political appointees,” Lewis says.

While the report is critical of the Ethics Commission’s process of dealing with ethics complaints, explored in detail in this story by Texas Watchdog, the interest groups said the process could not be fixed without an enforcement director with subpoena power to execute real investigations of ethics complaints.

Sunset Commission staff does, however, call for changes in the enforcement system that places greater emphasis and stiffer penalties on more serious ethics violations.

The current system focuses attention on even minor errors in the legally required financial disclosure reports filed by elected officials, confusing the public and potentially damaging the official, the report says.

“We think the ethics watchdog agency’s enforcement process should be revamped to go after the political sharks and not the minnows that make filing mistakes,” Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, said in a press release.

Rather than recommend creation of an enforcement branch, Sunset staff said reviews of complaints should be handled by Ethics Commission staff alone, leaving decisions on the complaints to commission members.

Those decisions would be subject to judicial review, the report says.

Sunset staff is asking the Legislature to give the Ethics Commission funding to improve a woefully out-of-date system for the filing of sworn complaints. The number of complaints filed increased to 374 in 2011 from 168 in 2004.

This upgrade would include financial disclosure statements to be submitted and posted electronically for the public. To view the ethics forms, members of the public must request them. The ethics commission is also required by law to keep the requestor’s name, address and affiliation on file. Thinking this onerous, Texas Watchdog posted them all online in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

To pay for the online postings, staff is asking candidates for legislative office and political committees to pay an annual fee to augment the lobbying registration fees that account for roughly 40 percent of the Ethics Commission’s $2 million annual budget.

The improvement in the technology fails to require a much greater level of detail in the reports, the reformers say.

The reform critique goes on to ask for campaign contributions limits, voluntary public financing of campaigns, longer prohibitions on elected officials becoming lobbyists and revoking state pension benefits of legislators convicted of a felony.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo by flickr user Manuel Delgado Tenorio, used via a Creative Commons license.

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