Ethics loopholes should be closedState law that allows legislators to be hired to delay court cases should
April 9, 2003
The last major ethics legislation passed by the Texas Legislature was 12 years ago. Ominous loopholes in that law have long needed to be plugged, especially loopholes involving conflicts of interests for legislators. A case in point is the issue of legislative continuances.
Under state law, a legislator-lawyer can file for a legislative continuance, which allows for a court case to be put off for up to 30 days after the session. The law was intended to allow legislator-lawyers to attend the legislative session without harming their law practice. Legislators, however, have been hired solely to delay trials, in effect paid for the use of their names.
Every session has produced abuses of the legislative continuance law. This session, questions have been raised about Rep. Gabi Canales, a first-term legislator from Alice, who was hired by the drug firm Wyeth involving cases on the drug Fen-Phen.
Reports indicate Canales asked for continuances to delay at least three trials. Texans for Public Justice, a public interest watchdog, asked three legislators to provide data about legislative continuances they had requested. Rep. Aaron Pena of Edinburg and Ruben Hope of Conroe supplied the data, but Canales declined to do so. A suit was filed by Texans for Public Justice to obtain the information from Canales.
Last session, Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, who was a state representative then, was criticized for joining the Bridgestone/Firestone defense team and filing for a continuance. This session, Hinojosa filed a bill that would change the notice for legislative continuances from 10 days to 30 days.
That amounts to tinkering around the edges. What the Legislature should do is close the loophole. The one bill that would do that is House Bill 1606, a broad ethics measure by Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas. His bill would eliminate the practice of allowing legislators to get trials postponed during a session. The bill also would prohibit the practice that allows legislators to represent paying clients before state agencies in public hearings.
Wolens' sweeping measure may have little chance of being passed this session, which has been dominated by the budget crisis, but it shows that the work on ethics reform that began 12 years ago is far from over. This issue represents a different kind of legislative continuance, one that has
been postponed for far too long.