Peeling back the secrecy in Texas politics

Houston Chronicle

It may have been unique in the long history of our state – it certainly was odd – but I asked to be appointed to the Texas Ethics Commission. As the regulator of non-federal political campaigns and lobbying in Texas, the Commission has always been a hot seat.

Perhaps more astonished than anything else, Speaker of the House Joe Straus made me one of his two appointees to the Ethics Commission early in 2010. The lieutenant governor also names two members and the governor names four. Under the state constitutional amendment that created the Commission in 1991, both major parties are represented and represented equally.

I sought appointment to the Commission after being subject to both state and federal ethics laws over a 35-year period. Ethical behavior is certainly expected of those who hold a public trust, and the laws were warranted. My complaint was that “ethics” in government had become bureaucratized, no longer a matter of proper behavior but of correctly and timely filling out official forms.

Indeed, the body I joined in Austin six-plus years ago had become what I called the Perfect Paperwork Commission. We would spend great amounts of time deciding what to fine someone who was an hour late in filing a campaign report or who had not stated the purpose of an $11.89 expenditure at the post office.

These petty deliberations and determinations gave rise to a justifiable criticism that the Ethics Commission was “going after the minnows and not the sharks.” Our former chairman, Jim Clancy, a Corpus Christi attorney, laboriously drafted charts on what (if anything) to fine people for the ordinary human acts of omission, ignorance, or forgetfulness. This freed the Commission to focus on significant cases involving alleged sharks.

Another former chairman, Paul W. Hobby of Houston, calls the Ethics Commission “the disclosure agency.” State law does not limit the amount of money that candidates may receive and spend – nor should it. In the absence of such limits, knowing who gives money in politics and how it is spent is the best tool the public and the press have to weigh candidates and referenda. We on the commission, without a dissenter, defend this principle every time we meet.

Some groups allege that disclosure is an infringement of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and the right to petition government for “a redress of grievances.” They claim that donors could be subject to harassment if their names are made public, and they cite a 1958 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that protected members of the Alabama NAACP from having their names revealed.

But it is ludicrous to compare some of our state’s richest and most influential political players with the truly endangered members of the Alabama NAACP in the era of segregation. They simply don’t want us to know who they are and whom they are supporting.

One day a court of competent jurisdiction may sympathize with these bashful billionaires and throw out the disclosure laws enforced by the Texas Ethics Commission. Until that day, we shall fulfill our sworn duty to uphold those laws and pursue violators to the extent we are able.

If an organization sincerely believes that the constitutional rights of all Texans are being violated – and is not merely seeking to mask its wealthy donors – it should try to change the laws. But lawmakers should not be beguiled or cajoled into weakening the state’s ethics laws on such spurious grounds. They should know they would be – and should be held accountable for – pulling an invisibility cloak over the politics of our state.

It is a very good thing that nearly all the current members of the Texas Ethics Commission have themselves been candidates for public office. We know what it’s like to live under the laws we enforce. And in that enforcement we aim to encourage greater, not lesser, participation in politics at all levels.

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