Chances are that even if you’ve lived in Texas for the past 20 years, you have not heard of the Texas Ethics Commission.
That’s because the state’s official political watchdog hardly ever barks, much less bites.
The commission was set up in the early 1990s in the wake of one of those unpleasantnesses in which the House speaker was indicted.
Given that the commission was established by politicians to police politicians, it was born with much fanfare … and no bicuspids.
Because it is 20 years old, it was subject this year to review by the Legislature’s Sunset Commission.
That body recommended a dental implant – but only with a few baby teeth.
How toothless is the Ethics Commission? Let me give a few examples.
A state official, Bill Ceverha, reported to the commission that he had received a gift of “a check.”
The Ethics Commission ruled that he had complied with the law simply by reporting the receipt of the check from Houston homebuilder and mega-donor Bob Perry.
The state official was not required to divulge the amount of the check.
That made sense to me – as long as he framed the uncashed check and hung it on his wall.
The check turned out to be for $50,000, something Ceverha eventually disclosed on his own.
An outside watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, discovered that the Ethics Commission had made its ruling in a secret meeting.
A commission lawyer actually compounded the comedy by announcing that by law the decision could not be disclosed.
Example No. 2: Texas law is clear that office holders can’t use campaign donations for their personal benefit.
The Ethics Commission ruled that this means legislators can’t buy Austin condos with campaign funds.
But the commission also ruled that if a legislator’s spouse happens to own a condo independently, then a legislator can use campaign cash to pay rent to the spouse for the condo.
Before long at least five legislators were renting from their spouses with campaign funds.
Example No. 3: A Texas Ethics Commission “Campaign Finance Guide” instructs candidates and office holders that the law prohibits them from using campaign funds to hire spouses or dependent children.
The commission found Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert guilty of paying his wife $6,200 for bookkeeping services.
Because of what it called “the seriousness of the violations” the commission wrote that the violation warranted a “sanction necessary to deter future violations.”
The sanction: $100. And the county judge was allowed to pay it with – you guessed it – campaign funds.
The Ethics Commission has issued a few larger fines, but the reality is that it is a toothless body.
And despite the recommendations of the Sunset Commission, it will remain so.
The Commission’s proposals were modest:
- The Ethics Commission should have an investigative arm.
- It should do random audits of campaign finance reports rather than to simply rely on sworn complaints.
- It should require office holders to file personal finance reports electronically so they can be put on line. As it is, you have to go to Austin to inspect them.
These are tame proposals, but this week the Senate State Affairs Committee, after due consideration, unanimously voted out a bill that provides for none of them.
Instead, it calls for a two-year study by a panel heavily stacked with politicians.
CORRECTION: I made a mathematical error in last week’s Last Word.
I said Hemisfair was 35 years ago. It was 45 years ago.
That means I’m older than I thought.