Dentures Anyone?

Texas Ethics Commission spits out one of its few existing teeth in determining that public officials don't have to disclose the dollar amount of checks given to them as gifts

The Texas Ethics Commission spit out one of its few existing teeth last week, determining that public officials don't have to disclose the dollar amount of checks given to them as gifts. Never mind that the public official in this case isn't just some faceless political appointee who's new to financial disclosure laws. No, the official in question is Bill Ceverha, a GOP insider and board member of the Employees Retirement System of Texas. And the gift giver is Houston home builder Bob Perry, the largest individual political donor in Texas. In his disclosure filings to the Ethics Commission last year, Ceverha stated that he received a check from Perry but did not reveal the amount. In response, public watchdog Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission, citing state laws requiring political appointees to disclose financial information to the state.

While some Ethics Commission members favored clarifying the disclosure rules that apply to government appointees, they couldn't convince a supermajority of six commissioners to support such a motion. The commission did agree to revisit the issue of rule-making at next month's meeting, but open-government advocates aren't counting on any dramatic progress on the campaign-finance front.

The commission's squeamishness over enforcing its authority in the Ceverha case left government watchdogs dismayed but not altogether surprised. Ceverha was appointed to the state retirement board by House Speaker Tom Craddick, who had previously enlisted Ceverha to serve on his transition team when he became speaker. Last year, a judge ruled that Ceverha, in his capacity as treasurer of one of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's fundraising committees, broke the law by failing to disclose nearly $600,000 in corporate contributions. Ceverha subsequently filed for personal bankruptcy, prompting Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, to call for his resignation from the retirement board. Burnam argues that a bankrupt political appointee with a history of nondisclosure has no business overseeing nearly $20 billion in state money.

The Ethics Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, the lieutenant governor, and House speaker, has historically operated as a weak-kneed regulatory agency. Last week's meeting provided additional proof. In a statement after the meeting, Burnam – a vocal and frequent critic of the state Republican leadership – pointed out that the commission's inaction effectively allows all public officials to accept cash gifts without disclosing the amount. "Under this misguided opinion, any appointee, commission, or board member could literally accept a $1 million check and simply write 'check' on their disclosure form," he said.

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Bill Ceverha, Texans for Public Justice, Tom DeLay, Texas Ethics Commission, Lon Burnham, Employees Retirement System of Texas

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