The brutal death of ethics reform in Texas

Photo by Phil Sonpott

After a chicken magnate, Bo Pilgrim, was spotted in 1989 doling out $10,000 checks on the floor of the state Senate to get his way on a bill, those in control of the Texas Capitol couldn't ignore that they had an ethics problem.

Lawmakers responded two years later with Senate Bill 1, which established that disclosure — and not limits — would be the basis of Texas' ethics laws. It was grounded in the belief that voters, armed with ample information, could determine on their own if elected officials were acting in the public interest.

With the passage of House Bills 3736 and 3511 this session, the Legislature has begun to chip away at disclosure by codifying a way to conceal a lawmaker's assets that are held by a spouse. This language was added late in the session without being debated in committee and is contrary to a Texas Ethics Commission rule. It also flies in the face of the ethics deal the Legislature made with voters.

How can voters know whether lawmakers are acting in the public interest or for their own personal gain if they can't get a full picture of members’ financial interests?

Virginia provides a recent case study of why benefits to a spouse matter. Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife both received gifts from a "friend" who was the CEO of a dietary supplement company. These gifts included a shopping spree for Maureen McDonnell, wedding catering for their daughter, golf outings for their sons and use of a private jet. In exchange, the governor promoted the products by introducing the company to state health officials and encouraging public institutions to use them. Last year, both McDonnells were found guilty of corruption and were sentenced to prison.

The Legislature also killed bills that would have required more transparent reporting of how lobbyists wine and dine members and uncovered the “dark money” behind increasingly influential political groups.

Lastly, in the name of public integrity, those in control of the Capitol carved out a special class of accused criminals — themselves. If Gov. Greg Abbott signs House Bill 1690, elected officials will no longer be subject to the same rules as everyone else when they're charged with certain crimes. Under Texas law, criminal charges are generally brought in the county where the crime allegedly occurred. But HB 1690 would give legislators and other elected officials a choice: They can go home to stand trial with a hometown prosecutor, judge and jury; or, if they don’t like that option, there’s a loophole giving them a shot at a venue in another county where they can claim a homestead even without living there.

Not only does this ignore the basic legal principle that a crime is tried where it is committed, but it will result in less accountability if hometown prosecutors and hometown judges are reluctant to spend local dollars to pursue cases against popular elected officials.

This session was supposed to be a big one for ethics. Abbott even declared it an emergency. What happened? Unlike in 1991, lawmakers didn’t rise to the challenge. Instead, they used the guise of the "ethics session" to protect themselves from public scrutiny and accountability.

Kirk Watson

State senator, D-Austin