Friday, April 13, 2012

Ethics Commission Lacks Teeth | Casey's Last Word

This week the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which is charged with periodically reviewing the performances of state agencies and recommending changes to the Legislature, began hearing from the public about the Texas Ethics Commission.

A number of watchdog groups offered a serious critique of the Commission.

Most importantly, they said, the Ethics Commission does a good job of catching and fining candidates who miss deadlines and make minor errors in their campaign finance reports.

But the Commission misses the more important violations.

“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,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.

One recent example of missing the shark: Representative Kino Flores was convicted of perjury and other felonies for hiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and gifts from persons and companies allegedly seeking political favors.

Five months later, the Ethics Commission, which played no role in the criminal investigation, fined him $700.

There is a reason the Commission is a toothless watchdog.

When it created the Commission in the wake of a massive scandal 20 years ago, the Legislature gave it no teeth.

It has no investigative staff and no subpoena power or even random auditing capabilities.

The Commission only “investigates” complaints by citizens, many of which are “gotcha glitches” found by opposing campaigns.

Reformers want to give the Commission teeth.

But more than that is needed. Just because an animal has teeth doesn’t mean it will bite.

My favorite example: Back in 2005, Bill Ceverha, one of the men indicted with Tom DeLay, was required to file a financial report with the Commission because he had been appointed to the board of the Employees Retirement System.

The law required him to report any gift he received worth more than $250.

One item he reported was a check from Houston homebuilder and political mega-contributor Bob Perry.

How much was it worth?

Ceverha didn’t say. He just listed a “check” from Perry.

That would make sense if Ceverha posted the check in a scrapbook and never cashed it.

But since he did cash it, most of us would regard the gift to be not the check itself, but the cash it produced for Ceverha.

But not the Texas Ethics Commission.

When the issue of whether Ceverha was required by law to tell the amount, a majority of the Ethics Commission board voted in a secret session that the description of the gift as a “check” was sufficient under the law.

Ceverha later disclosed that the check was one of two for $50,000 that Bob Perry gave him to help pay legal expenses in connection with the DeLay scandal.

The Legislature didn’t require the Ethics Commission board to adopt that absurd interpretation of the law.

A substantial minority of the board reportedly didn’t.

The majority did it on their own accord.

The problem isn’t just that the Legislature didn’t give the Texas Ethics Commission any teeth.

It’s also that the foxes get to choose who is guarding the hen house.

By law, the eight commissioners are nominated by the members of the Legislature.

Four are appointed by the governor and two each by the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House.

If Texas is going to have a serious Ethics Commission, it must not only be given investigative tools and the money to use them.

It must also be given an independence that the current appointment method doesn’t provide.

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