Thursday, November 30, 2006

Texas and ethics: an oxymoron?

Gotta say, this doesn't look good:

A Texas official who receives any sum of cash as a gift can satisfy state disclosure laws by reporting the money simply as "currency," without specifying the amount, the Texas Ethics Commission reiterated Monday.

Texas officials must report all gifts over $250. What this ruling says is that they don't have to say whether the check was for $250 or $250,000. It would be a massive understatement to describe it as contrary to the spirit of transparency that underlines most ethics laws.

Luckily, most observers have not been so restrained.

"What the Ethics Commission has done is legalize bribery in the state of Texas. We call on the commission to resign en masse," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, who heads Texas Citizen, an Austin-based group that advocates for campaign finance reform.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, said the "currency" interpretation would render it "perfectly legal to report the gift of 'a wheelbarrow' without reporting that the wheelbarrow was filled with cash."

In a letter to the commissioners dated Monday, Earle called such an analysis "absurd and out of step with both the law and current public attitudes and concerns about corruption in government."

The Ethics Commission has its defenders, who say the problem is the unclear law, not the Commission's interpretation of it. The commission, they say, is constrained by the language of the law, which nowhere specifies that the amount of the gift should be revealed. Indeed, Republicans have delighted in pointing out that the law in question was passed by Democrats in 1993.

(When reading the above law, be sure to pause at Subchapter C, lines 75-1 to 75-27, where there still exists a prohibition against communists running for office, except that the definition of "communist" has been changed to mean "anyone who commits an act reasonably calculated to further the overthrow of the government." Then skip ahead to line 77-8, where you'll find the law establishing the Texas Ethics Commission, and line 110-21, where you'll find the chapter discussing financial disclosure standards; line 124-3 is the particular language in question).

Republicans are right that the statute doesn't specify a dollar amount is required. But the law does require a "description" of any gift over $250, and if you read the chapter as a whole it's clear that dollar amounts are central to the process.

Isn't that the point of having an ethics commission -- to make such decisions when the law is silent on a particular detail? And shouldn't that decision take into account the purpose and function of ethics laws? Instead, the commission made a ruling that pulled its own teeth.

The good news is that the Texas legislature appears poised to fix the problem in the next session, by specifying that the disclosure must include the dollar amount. And governor Rick Perry has indicated he would sign it.

Maybe while they're at it they can specify the kind of behavior they expect from a commission charged with preventing corruption in public office. And foremost in that clause should be the following: "In its deliberations the commission shall seek to prevent corruption, not abet it."

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