Craddick abolishes House ethics panelBy Jim Vertuno, The Associated Press
April 15, 2004
AUSTIN - Declaring its work complete, Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick has disbanded the House Select Committee on Ethics, a move questioned and criticized by Democrats and a campaign finance watchdog group that noted that Craddick's election as speaker is under scrutiny by a Travis County grand jury.
Craddick spokesman Bob Richter said the panel was disbanded Tuesday because it had accomplished its main goal: the passage of an ethics bill in the 2003 regular session.
"If those guys want to make an issue out of it, that's what they do," Richter said. "They're just trying to stir things up. He's not ducking anything."
The ethics panel has not met since May, Richter said. Committee members said Wednesday that there had been no formal discussion to raise the issues under investigation by the grand jury. Craddick, who authored an ethics bill killed by Democrats in 1991, appointed the panel in January 2003 with jurisdiction "over all matters pertaining to ethics of governmental officers and employees, including the regulation of lobbying and personal financial disclosure."
It had oversight of matters extending to criminal offenses such as bribery, corrupt influence and abuse of office. The committee was led by Democratic Rep. Steve Wolens, who is retiring. Any issues the panel might have addressed will be sent to other standing committees, Craddick said.
Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting and Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that tracks political donations, questioned the decision to disband the panel.
They noted that a Travis County grand jury is looking into the speaker's race, as well as corporate donations that bolstered Republican campaigns in 2002.
"Abolishing the ethics committee is like disbanding the police force in the middle of a crime wave," said Craig McDonald, the watchdog group's executive director. "Instead of disbanding the ethics committee, it should be made a permanent committee of the House.
Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, a committee member, said panel members had not tried to launch their own investigation.
"The former prosecutor in me would be hesitant to somehow impact a grand jury investigation," Gallego said. "There will be plenty of time for legislative investigations."
However, he also said the committee would have been "the perfect forum" to discuss issues that may arise from the grand jury investigation.
Gallego said abolishing the panel was likely to invite criticism. "The timing is bad," he said. Craddick "stepped on an anthill. He didn't need to do that."
A Republican on the ethics panel, Rep. Mary Denny of Aubrey, said many of the issues the committee might have considered could be sent to the Elections Committee, which she heads. Denny said she also believes that the ethics panel's job is finished.
Top state Republicans have called the grand jury investigation a "witch hunt." They have accused Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, of pursuing it for political purposes.