The Austin Chronicle

Ethical Sunset

By Michael King, April 19, 2002, News

The Texas Ethics Commission is scheduled for Sunset Review this year, with a public hearing before the state's Sunset Advisory Commission scheduled for April 24 at the Capitol. The Sunset staff has made a half-dozen recommendations to improve the Ethics Commission, including: increase the commission's investigative authority, simplify the complaint process, enforce investigation timelines, restrict the exemptions on computer filing of campaign finance statements, and disseminate public information more efficiently. In the fall, the Sunset Commission will make its recommendations to the Legislature, which in the past has shown little inclination to tighten the regulations on political campaigns -- that is, to police its own members, all of whom just happen to be political campaigners.

But hope springs eternal in the hearts of reformers, and Suzy Woodford of Common Cause of Texas says the organization will be coming to the hearing to add public impetus to the staff recommendations and its own. When the Ethics Commission was created in 1991, she said, the Legislature was terrified that the new agency might actually become effective, so they limited its powers almost to the point of non-existence. "For one thing," Woodford said, "we need to get rid of the penalties staff can face if they want to interview a witness." As the law now stands, staff or commission investigations are subject to rigid rules of confidentiality, with any breach subject to penalties often heavier than the campaign finance law infractions being investigated: fines, civil penalties, and even jail time. In practice, that means interviews take place only with complainants and respondents (in theory, the accused politician him- or herself), and "third party" witnesses are seldom interviewed, because to do so would "breach confidentiality."

"No other agency is subject to that kind of burden," said Woodford. "And in '91, the confidentiality rules even applied to the complainant and the respondent. That was thrown out in court. But it was clear that the Legislature's intent was to gag everybody." Woodford says the staff should also be given subpoena power; currently only the eight-member commission, which meets once a month, can issue subpoenas. In cases of suspected criminal violation -- of which the commission says it has found a few -- those cases should be shared with other investigative agencies or prosecutors, she asserts. "Because of the confidentiality limits, we can't even know what the violations may have been -- but it's ridiculous that they are not referred for further investigation."

Woodford's proposals are seconded by Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People, who adds that there are "two big issues" among the several recommendations reform groups will be proposing to the commission next week. "In the first place," Lewis said, "we need to open up the process to the public. The only part of the process that is open is a public hearing -- but in over 800 complaints, they've had only one formal public hearing. The rest were settled or dismissed for 'lack of evidence.'" Lewis says that in California and Florida, the records are open once the agencies complete their investigations, "so if it's a frivolous complaint, the public can see that, and if it's a substantive complaint, they can see that too."

"Secondly," Lewis went on, "they need to give the staff investigative and enforcement power, and not have to wait on a vote of six of eight commissioners to initiate an investigation. Any other department has the power to investigate ... The Ethics Commission cannot function properly if it doesn't have the tools to do its job."

Recent ethics battles at the Lege have involved electronic filing of campaign finance information, which in theory would enable voters to review political contribution information online, and avoid a trip to the Capitol. But current law exempts candidates who claim they will collect less than $20,000 or say they "don't own a computer to track contributions." Woodford laughed as she reviewed the January filings of candidates who claimed that exemption. "[Gubernatorial candidate] Dan Morales is on here, Jon Lindsay [Houston state senator] is on this list -- I mean, come on." Woodford says the commission should be able to change that limitation by regulation -- a power the Legislature currently holds to itself. "People have the right to know who these contributors are, whether they live in Austin or Hereford," said Woodford.

Ironically, in recent months Common Cause of Texas has been facing a potential sunset of its own. In March, the Houston Chronicle reported that the state organization -- the first state Common Cause chapter, founded 30 years ago -- was facing closure if it couldn't raise $30,000 in the next few months. A March 19 fundraising letter produced good results, says Woodford. "I'm happy to say that when we did our spring appeal, the members have responded. We're out of intensive care, if not out of the hospital." The organization is planning additional fundraisers, including one here in Austin on May 30. Woodford said if the organization folds, it will leave a "void" in Texas politics, a thought seconded by Lewis.

"Common Cause has made an incredibly valuable contribution to good government in Texas," Lewis said, "especially on such issues as open meetings and open records. We are very short of public interest groups in Texas, and if we were to lose such an important group, it would not be helpful to the public interest."

For more info, consult the Common Cause of Texas Web site at, mail to 1615 Guadalupe, #204, 78701, or call 474-2374. Campaigns for People:

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