Texas Ethics Commission staff recommended strengthening the agency’s enforcement abilities, reducing penalties for minor paperwork mistakes and making more disclosure documents available to the public online.
If the panel eventually supports the staff recommendations, the ethics commission could end up with its first-ever enforcement division and greater power to subpoena records to investigate complaints.
“We feel it’s in the public’s interest to have an open situation where there’s daylight all through the transactions we have,” said Tom Ramsay, a retired lawmaker from East Texas who chairs the ethics commission.
Even so, changing ethics laws at the Capitol has been difficult in the past. The commission was created two decades ago after a legislative influence-peddling scandal. No matter how much support reforms might seem to have at a meeting, approval can be derailed after lawmakers ponder whether they really want to give an agency more power to bust them for violations.
The commission is expected to vote this summer on the proposals.
While the ethics changes drew support Tuesday, the judicial conduct commission drew angry rebukes from lawmakers who were upset about the agency’s secrecy.
Lawmakers expressed concern that the judicial commission asserted attorney-client privilege to keep secret some of its investigation records.
Tom Cunningham, chairman of the judicial conduct commission, said provisions in state law and the Texas Constitution make their records confidential — provisions the agency cannot waive.
Additional witnesses complained that the judicial commission had not fully investigated or prosecuted cases of judicial misconduct, claims that could not be verified because of the agency’s secrecy.
“We citizens of Texas have the right to know who the bad judges are,” said J. Gary Trichter, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association,
When two prominent state House Republicans last week asked the Texas Ethics Commission to investigate a powerful special-interest group and its president for what they called illegal lobbying, Reps. Jim Keffer and Vicki Truitt said it was important for the state agency to stop the abuse.
But if history is a measure, odds are that little will happen — other than perhaps a fine.
Since it was created 20 years ago, after an ethics scandal roiled the Legislature over lobby-paid trips and campaign contributions handed out on the Senate floor to influence a key vote, the state’s primary ethics watchdog has mostly served as a repository for paperwork filings to give the public a peek at campaign and lobby finance.
Texas has a lot of good people trying to hold their elected officials and judges accountable for their actions and be loyal to the people of Texas. This is a noble undertaking that is getting some attention right now . But, history will show that the plug will be pulled very quietly on this endeavor and you may not hear about it again for a while. If this commission actually succeeds enforcing ethics for judges and elected officials (politicians) in the state of Texas, my hat is off to them. I will shave my head and take a picture if they succeed! Really!