in Houston, Texas
Ethics bill would require disclosure of lawmakers’ contracts with state of Texas
Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013, 12:53PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
see-through raincoat

Look out, Linda Harper-Brown. If lawmakers aren’t careful people are going to start calling this the See-Through Legislature.

Blissfully aware of the animus they are supposed to have for one another’s politics, hardline conservative Rep. Giovanni Capriglione and hardline liberal Rep. Mary González are staging a veritable lovefest with a bill that would require all legislators to disclose if they or their family members do business with state or local government.

House Bill 524 would require lawmakers, many of whom are also lawyers, to waive any attorney-client privilege should they choose to represent a company doing business with a state agency, a public university or a water district, the Texas Tribune reports.

The bill comes less than a year after the Ethics Commission fined Harper-Brown, R-Irving, $2,000 for failing to reveal that a brand new Mercedes Benz she had been driving was a barter payment to her husband for accounting work he did for a company with state transportation contracts.

Giovanni CapriglioneGiovanni Capriglione

Harper-Brown sat on the House Transportation Committee at the time a complaint was filed against her with the Ethics Commission.

Capriglione, in his second week on the job, is daring his colleagues to ignore their bill.  “I want to see who doesn’t vote for this,” he tells the Tribune. “It gets to the crux of the distrust between the public and elected officials: Where there’s a lack of transparency, they assume the worst.”

The Southlake Republican has a little familiarity with the topic, having beaten former Rep. Vicki Truitt, another disclosure-challenged representative of the people, in the Republican primary in District 98 this past May.

Giving Capriglione a big rhetorical bearhug, the Democrat from Clint replied, “Transparency and ethics are bipartisan issues.”

Taking this sentiment to heart, state Sen. Wendy Davis on Tuesday filed Senate Bill 178, a companion bill with much the same disclosure language as HB 524.

Davis, D-Fort Worth, was able to research her bill firsthand as a partner of Brian Newby, former chief of staff for Gov. Rick Perry. Newby Davis promotes on its website expertise representing every manner of government entity including the state’s public schools and a facility for assisting on bond financing.

Accused by her Republican opponent for state Senate, Mark Shelton, of criminal conflicts of interest, Davis this past fall insisted her practice did not interfere with her role as a representative. She declined, however, to identify her clients, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to do so would violate attorney-client privilege.

At the time she was denying any conflict of interest, Davis decided to remain mum on Shelton’s contention that Newby Davis was being paid handsomely to represent the North Texas Tollway Authority at the same time Davis was voting to support SB469 assisting the authority in collecting unpaid tolls.

Davis told Texas Tribune yesterday afternoon she would be amending SB 178 just in case it wasn’t clear enough to everyone the disclosure requirement would include her.

Capitol visitors this session, don’t worry. Should the emperors speaking on the floor of the House or Senate be wearing no clothes, assume they have filed another transparency bill.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of clear raincoat via Allyn.com, the site documenting the work of artist Mark Allyn. Photo of Texas state Capitol by flickr user Frank Swift, used via a Creative Commons license.

Windstorm reform bill sent to governor, but not without complaints from all sides; TWIA bill aims to contain costs, stem tide of policyholder lawsuits
Tuesday, Jun 28, 2011, 08:49PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Hurricane Ike

The Legislature Tuesday passed a Texas Windstorm Insurance Association reform bill Tuesday that dissatisfied representatives of coastal policyholders, fiscal conservatives, Democrats in both chambers and the Senate author.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 3 by a vote of 18 to 12, with a single Republican member, Jeff Wentworth, of San Antonio, voting against the bill with every Democrat present. The House passed the bill 98-44, along party lines.

The bill now goes on to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.

Senate Republicans who voted for the bill complained bitterly that the controversial Windstorm Insurance Association, snowed under by Hurricane Ike claims that have cost more than $1.2 billion, is chronically and fiscally unsound.

Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who reluctantly voted with the majority, had last week unsuccessfully offered up a bill to abolish the agency.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who earned praise from his colleagues for championing what amounted to a thankless piece of legislation, asked for passage of the bill at the very time admitting on the Senate floor that he doubted the Windstorm Insurance Association could ever work in its current quasi-state agency configuration.

Carona said he had done the best he could to work for a reform that struck a balance between the state’s responsibility to a sound agency and the state’s service to more than 250,000 homeowners in 14 coastal counties whose only option for windstorm insurance protection is through the association.

An agreement came after intense negotiation between Carona and Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, author of the original TWIA reform bill. Smithee said Monday he was satisfied at the balance struck between protecting the state from lawsuits and making sure a policyholder had legal recourse.

“Change was essential for the continuation of TWIA,” Carona said. “As long as TWIA exists, imperfect as it is, we had to strike a balance between our responsibilities and the interests of the policyholders.”

On either side of that balance were lobbyists.

On one side was the Texas Association of Trial Lawyers, headed by Steve Mostyn, whose Houston law firm made millions of dollars representing TWIA policyholders in Hurricane Ike claims lawsuits.

On the other side was Texans for Lawsuit Reform, recoiling from the hundreds of millions of dollars the Windstorm Insurance Association was paying out in damage claims and penalties awarded by juries for TWIA’s administrative settlement problems.

The legislation bears the lawsuit reform imprint. The law no longer allows policyholders to ask for or collect triple damages for an egregious failure of the association to pay off a windstorm claim. A policyholder may no longer demand an 18 percent penalty for a late claim payment.
Policyholders with a claims dispute must now submit to a third-party appraisal of damages by the Texas Department of Insurance.

The policyholder must also make a case that the association intentionally acted in bad faith to make a case in court. Only then would a claimant be eligible to receive double damages for the actual damage in the claim and subsequent damages for not attending to the claim in a timely way.

Without these changes, Carona said, Texas could not hope to contain costs outside of the payment of actual damages. Carona said he was hopeful that a shakeup in the association administration -- prompted in part by disclosures by Texas Watchdog and including the replacement of the longtime general manager, Jim Oliver -- would help minimize the kings of claims that ended up in court.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said that by reducing the penalties for breach of contract the state was inviting malfeasance by TWIA officials. She objected to putting the burden of proof of TWIA’s intentions on the policyholder.

“I’m very concerned that we are not being consumer protective and that there is no consequence for TWIA’s bad acts,” Davis said. “This is a quasi-state agency with a history of very real problems.”

On that point, Davis got no argument from Carona and voters on either side of the issue.
 
***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Aerial photo of Hurricane Ike by flickr user SkyTruth, used via a Creative Commons license.
Today's featured video: Talking redistricting in Texas
Monday, Apr 11, 2011, 12:29PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
Toast

Hope you're hungry today, because we're talking about redistricting, and it involves fried chicken and toast.

Some folks think the redistricting process should be removed from politics, Texas Tribune Editor Evan Smith says.

"We ought to take the calories out of fried chicken, too," Sen. Kel Seliger responds.

The occasion is the Tribune's recent in-depth discussion with Seliger and state Rep. Burt Solomons on the state's redistricting process. They're the chairmen of the Senate and House redistricting committees.

A video of the session is today's featured video on the Texas Watchdog home page.

Smith asked the duo why politicians should be involved in redistricting.

"If you don't look at them as politicians, you look at them as legislators," says Solomons, a Carrollton Republican. "They're familiar with their area, they're familiar with the people in their area, they're familiar with the community interests in their area, and why shouldn't they have input?"

In the House, for larger counties represented by multiple House members, county delegations have been dispatched to meet and work out their own redistricting boundaries, Solomons says. The same is going on on the Senate side, Seliger reports.

"The delegations are actually working really well together," Solomons says. "There's going to be some very happy people, and there's gonna be a few very unhappy people. My role, as I see it, is to ensure that I have as few unhappy people as I can get to."

After the the big-picture discussions, Smith asks about four House members said to be at risk in the redistricting process. The chairmen have little to say about the four, besides the vague statement that the four are probably preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

Smith then zeroes in on the situation of state Sen. Wendy Davis, the first-term Democrat from Fort Worth who knocked off Republican stalwart Kim Brimer in the last election.

"Is Wendy Davis toast?" Smith asks. "That is the perception out here in the world -- that if any member of the Senate is essentially in need of another thing to do after the session, it may be Mrs. Davis."

Seliger, an Amarillo Republican, responds: "I wouldn't go so far as to say she's toast, but given the composition of her district today, she will be challenged, because it's still at least marginally a Republican district."

But that's different from redistricting, Smith says, asking whether the committee will "monkey with the lines (of her district) to the degree that she cannot win" again?

"We haven't done it yet," Seliger said. "We're going to look at it and see what it's going to do. There will be a lot of pressure from people in the Republican Party to try to do something there. How far it can be taken, I don't know yet."

TribLive: Kel Seliger and Burt Solomons on Redistricting from texastribune on Vimeo.

***
Spot a good video? Shoot us a note at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeedand tumblr.

Photo of toast by flickr user Brighton Guy, used via a Creative Commons license.

Voters' reactions to ethics scandals hard to predict
Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010, 01:15PM CST
By Mark Lisheron

Is political scandal a killer at election time?

Texas Tribune's smart, exhaustive survey today of state politicians in trouble concludes with an emphatic shrug of the shoulders. When it comes to running afoul of ethics rules, the law or the Internal Revenue Service, the political consultants here agree that the consequences are dire. Sometimes. Well, maybe. But it depends.


The analysts say the effect of a scandal on the future of a candidate depends on three Ts: timing, or how close to the election the malfeasance is discovered; turnout, or whether the race was originally expected to bring lots of voters to the polls; and tradition, or how impregnable a wall the candidate's incumbency has built.


vote here

The story reviews the circumstances behind ethics allegations against Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, whose political opponents have dubbed Linda Harper-Benz for having driven a $56,000 luxury car with a similar brand name owned by a company with state transportation contracts and given to Harper-Brown's husband in exchange for contract work.


Harper-Brown, R-Irving, having renounced the Mercedes, may benefit from one of the Ts, timing, having taken her beating back in June, but which may be offset by another, the turnout of what is expected to be a close race in a swing district.


Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, tells Texas Tribune he thinks the third T, a tradition of 17 years in the House serving people around whom he was born and raised will trump what he says was a mistake he made for years billing taxpayers and his campaign for the same travel expenses. All has been repaid, Driver says, as he awaits a decision by the Travis County District Attorney's office on whether or not to pursue criminal charges against him. 


To demonstrate how serendipitous this whole scandal thing is, there are the cases of former representatives Gene Seaman of Corpus Christi and Toby Goodman of Arlington. Both were dogged by allegations of improper rental arrangements with their property owning spouses and both lost reelection bids. In 2007, a year after Seaman was defeated, good government advocates challenged the same sort of rental arrangements of longtime state Senate stalwarts Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, and Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville.


You could say that Nelson survives today because of the tradition T. But Brimer lost in 2008 in spite of tradition and in spite of filing an ethics complaint of his own against the eventual winner, Wendy Davis. Goodman, too, lost in spite of tradition while Seaman never had it.


But in each case and that of Harper-Brown, too, the defining issue was spelled S for spousal and L for loophole. Despite all the protestations, the state Ethics Commission has no history of dunning lawmakers for their spouse's property, income, compensation and gifts if they have, as the Legislature so cleverly wrote it, no actual control over it.


To make things even more strenuously contingent, to the three Ts, Texas Watchdog would add two Ps: Politics and Process. If, on the campus of Animal House's Faber College, every Halloween the trees are filled with underwear, so every election cycle the Ethics Commission is jammed with ethics complaints against incumbents filed by the operatives of their opponents. In each case voters are faced with deciding what is an ethical breach and what is the smokescreen of politics.


The best of Texas Watchdog hopes are pinned on a general electorate guided by process. In each case a scandal is based on allegations. Even though a politician might appear to be guilty by association with his or her chosen profession, the politician is not guilty by accusation, but innocent until proven guilty. More often than not, Ethics Commission rulings come long after elections are decided.


What putting all these Ts and Ps together spells, particularly without the aid of vowels, may not foretell what scandal might mean for candidates this November and sounds distinctly like trying to expel a fuzzy from the tip of the tongue. Or as Dean Rindy, a Democratic media strategist, told Texas Tribune with an air of finality, “It can kill you, or you can skate by," Rindy says. "Every situation is unique."

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of a 'Vote here' sign by flickr user Lester Public Library, used via a Creative Commons license.

Planned Parenthood of North Texas PAC fined $3,000 for campaign finance violations
Thursday, Aug 26, 2010, 10:56AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
20-dollar bills

The Texas Ethics Commission has fined Cary Jennings, the campaign treasurer for Planned Parenthood of North Texas' political action committee, $3,000 for failing to disclose spending $26,695 to support four political candidates in the November, 2008 state elections.

The Ethics Commission also found 
Planned Parenthood of North Texas Action Fund Political Committee had either failed to report or made mistakes with political contribution and expenditure totals on more than 17 monthly reports required by state law.

The action fund accepted the fine without protest and has improved its reporting procedures, fund director Kathryn Allen said.

The political action committee in a November 2008 report said it spent $26,695 for mass mailings the previous month. However, the report failed to say the mailings were made in support of Wendy Davis, who was running for state Senate and Dan Barrett, Carol Kent and Chris Turner, who were running for state House seats, according to the Ethics Commission findings.

The following month, the political action committee reported spending $15,410 in one day to the same company for a blitz of campaign telephone calls on behalf of Davis, Kent, Turner and Robert Miklos, who was running for the House. The Commission took note that this disclosure of candidate support was not reflected on the report's cover page.

The committee filed 17 corrected campaign finance reports on Sept. 14, 2009.

Allen said the committee made procedural errors in reporting because it is a relatively new group, inexperienced in proper campaign finance filing.

"This has all been a learning process for us," Allen said. "We have procedures in place now that should prevent us from making these kinds of human errors. I'm glad to have this behind us."

Davis, Kent, Turner and Miklos won their legislative races, while Barrett lost to Republican physician Mark Shelton.
 
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:58 p.m. Aug. 26 to include comments from action fund director Kathryn Allen that were received after initial publication of the story.
 
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of money by flickr user athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.
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