Ethics laws should trump political complaints
Editorial Board, Austin American-Statesman
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Sarah Woelk isn't the first state worker put on the chopping block for political reasons, and she lamentably won't be the last, but she surely doesn't deserve the negative attention she's getting for telling the truth.
Woelk is being investigated by no less than the Texas attorney general for offering a common-sense comment on Texas election law. Granted, the state's election laws are loose enough to resemble the skin of a shar-pei, but they are clear enough on reporting of political expenditures. So, when Woelk was quoted in a March 4 article in the Austin American-Statesman saying that Texas law requires political committees to report all expenditures, no matter who donates the money or whether it's used to elect a candidate or run the committees, she aroused the ire -- and invited the retaliation of -- Texans for a Republican Majority.
State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, howled for an investigation by the attorney general, thundering: "I do not believe the Ethics Commission, charged with safeguarding the integrity of our elections, should be commenting on matters directly relevant to pending litigation."
The "pending litigation" to which the representative refers is a grand jury investigation into suspected violations of campaign finance laws by Texans for a Republican Majority. The grand jury is looking into accusations that the group spent $600,000 in corporate money and did not report it to the Texas Ethics Commission. A civil suit is also pending. The GOP committee is arguing that it didn't have to report the corporate money because it was used for the committee's administrative expenses.
The American-Statesman asked Woelk to explain the state law on reporting corporate money. She replied that political committees should report all expenditures. "If the PAC has taken possession of the money, yeah, you have to report it," Woelk said. "That is clearly what the law says."
There may be some disagreement with Woelk's plain vanilla, common-sense and nonpartisan interpretation of the law, but she should be allowed to communicate to Texans who pay her salary what her notion of the law is.
This is an attempt to yank what few teeth this "watchdog" agency has -- to stifle an official for giving an answer that offends the powerful. The leash on the Texas Ethics Commission doesn't need to get any tighter.