The Austin Chronicle

Never Enough Time for Ethics

House GOP leadership plays pretend with ethics reform bill

By Amy Smith, April 22, 2005, News

Poor Mary Denny. The Aubrey Republican, chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, is under fire from everyone – everyone except House Speaker Tom Craddick, who may be the only one who counts – to move a bipartisan ethics bill out of her committee to the House floor.

Proponents of HB 1348 charge that Denny is deliberately dragging her feet on legislation that would tighten the state's ban on corporate money in political campaigns and prohibit anonymously financed attack ads, or so-called "issue ads," 60 days before an election. The bill is unusual in that it carries supporting signatures of 93 House members – 30 Republicans and 63 Democrats – including lead sponsors Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, and Todd Smith, R-Euless. It's also unusual that a bill with this much bipartisan support would be allowed to languish so long in committee.

An elections subcommittee heard testimony on the bill last week, but Denny says it's uncertain when the full committee will have a chance to consider the proposal. Skeptics fear it will be dead by Memorial Day, the last day of the session. Not to worry, Denny says. "Our plates are pretty full, but we've still got plenty of time. Nobody needs to get upset."

As it happens, Craddick, Denny, and other members who are in a position to delay the bill all benefited from precisely the brand of campaign spending that the legislation would eliminate. The proposed changes stem from the 2002 House races that put Republicans in control of the chamber, elevated Craddick to the speaker's post, and set into motion an ongoing criminal probe into the corporate spending habits of two groups that helped engineer the GOP sweep – the Texas Association of Business and Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee founded by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Of course, DeLay also figures prominently into the investigation that has so far led to indictments against three of his associates.

Foxes in the Henhouse

The timing of the alleged foot-dragging on the bill is also curious because a court ruling in a related civil lawsuit could come at any moment. In the lawsuit, Democratic plaintiffs claim that TRMPAC treasurer Bill Ceverha failed to report corporate contributions that helped the PAC work its magic in the 2002 House races. A civil trial last month included plenty of connect-the-dot testimony that ties Craddick and other GOP House members to TRMPAC's campaign efforts.

Late last week, Texans for Public Justice turned the heat up a few degrees. The watchdog group demanded that Denny recuse herself from acting on HB 1348 altogether, because she has been a direct beneficiary of the type of electioneering that the legislation would ban. TPJ leader Craig McDonald pointed to Ethics Commission filings that show TRMPAC spent $10,200 for "issue ad" mailers favorable to both Denny and Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, who hails from a neighboring North Texas county. McDonald said the mailer, distributed in the final weeks before the 2002 primary, helped Denny overcome a strong primary challenge. He again refers to Ethics Commission records his group compiled, which show 16% of Denny's 2002 campaign funds came from big donors who also gave thousands of dollars to TRMPAC and TAB. Denny isn't the only Elections Committee member who benefited from the spending spree of the two PACs. Vice-Chair Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, and subcommittee Chair Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, were also rewarded for supporting the "right" issues important to GOP rainmakers – tort reform, tax reform, welfare reform – every kind of "reform," it seems, except ethics reform. "The people who got elected with [TAB and TRMPAC] money have a conflict on this bill and they need to get out of the way," McDonald says.

Limbo Mysterioso

Denny is simply shocked that anyone would suggest she's stalling the bill to ensure it never hits the House floor, where it would surely pass. McDonald's "accusation asserts that I'm easily bought off, which is just preposterous," Denny said. "It's just offensive." She is equally offended by the assumption that, as part of Craddick's inner circle, she is taking her cues directly from the speaker. "I'm amazed that male chauvinism is alive and well in this day and age," she says. "The good thing about being on [Craddick's] leadership team is that he gives us free reign. He allows us the freedom to do what we think is right for the House of Representatives and right for the state of Texas."

And Denny doesn't believe that HB 1348, in its current form, is a good fit for the House, much less the state. "This bill frankly has a lot of concerns. I don't know who wrote it, but it didn't go through the attorneys here with the Legislative Council," she said. One of the bill's concerns, she added, is its potential threat to free speech, which just happens to be the same argument echoed many times before by TRMPAC and TAB spokespeople, and in testimony last week by state and county party leaders.

Why then, co-sponsor Smith asked the subcommittee, doesn't someone come forward with an acceptable alternative to the legislation? He continued, "I am somewhat less than impressed by the position taken by my own – gulp – political party. We are told by everybody that they support disclosure, and some seem less disturbed by the status quo than others. And the status quo clearly does not provide for disclosure." He lamented the fact that, though the bill has all the appearances of being a high-priority item to many legislators, GOP leaders are largely ignoring it. "Representative Eiland and I have, and are, willing to work with any group who expresses reasonable concerns [about the bill]," Smith said. "Anybody who criticizes the bill needs to have an alternative, because the status quo is not only unacceptable, it is unconscionable." end story

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