Thursday, February 10, 2005

A member of House Speaker Tom Craddick's leadership team wants to give the Texas Ethics Commission veto power over local prosecutors' prosecution of alleged crimes under the election code.

State should have veto over election inquiries, bill says

By Laylan Copelin, Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, February 10, 2005

A member of House Speaker Tom Craddick's leadership team wants to give the Texas Ethics Commission veto power over local prosecutors' prosecution of alleged crimes under the election code.

Rep. Mary Denny, R--Aubrey and chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, would create an office under the state commission to conduct election code violation investigations such as Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's two-year investigation of Craddick, the Texas Association of Business and Texans for a Republican Majority. Both political groups helped Denny in her 2002 election, particularly in a contested Republican primary. Denny's legislation, House Bill 913, would prohibit a prosecutor from pursuing charges if the new state office determined there was no criminal offense.

Shannon Edmonds of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association said the group is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the legislation but added, "It seems to keep prosecutors from prosecuting crimes."

Denny was not available for comment, but her aide, Noe Barrios, denied that his boss is trying to curtail prosecutions of politicians.

"If anything, she'd like to see more investigations and prosecutions of the law," Barrios said. "She feels election code violations are low on the totem pole for county and district attorneys."

Earle said the bill wouldn't accomplish that.

"This is the ultimate above-the-law bill," he said. "We can't have one law for politicians and another for everybody else. This is a slap in the face of the public."

In 2003, the Legislature passed similar legislation that requires state environmental officials to review complaints before prosecutors act. Edmonds said some of his association's members think such laws violate the Texas constitution's separation of powers, but the state has not yet used the new environmental law, so it has not been tested.

Barrios said Denny is not sure whether her bill would violate the constitution, but she is weighing offering a constitutional amendment if necessary.

A critic of Denny's bill, Craig McDonald with Texans for Public Justice, said the Ethics Commission, appointed by state officials and split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, is not known for taking action against officials.

"I think it's incumbent politicians circling the wagons to protect themselves from prosecution," McDonald said. "It puts a roadblock in the way of local prosecutors who should have a free hand in prosecuting violations of the law."

The Ethics Commission, created in 1991, has civil authority over election code violations and can refer criminal complaints to prosecutors. However, the agency has never subpoenaed a witness or any documents to investigate a complaint or referred a criminal case.

Barrios said Denny wants to increase the state commission's powers and would support more money for the agency if necessary.

He also questioned why a prosecutor would pursue a criminal complaint if the state Ethics Commission had found no violation.

Craddick, through a spokeswoman, declined comment because he had not read the bill.

Immediately after the 2002 legislative elections, Earle began investigating the use of corporate money in several crucial state races by the state's largest business organization and Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee created by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. State law prohibits corporate or union money from being spent on political campaigns.

A Travis County grand jury indicted three of DeLay's associates in September. The investigation is continuing.

Craddick has been pulled into the fray because of his role with Texans for a Republican Majority.

A special law bars outside groups from offering help to a candidate for speaker, and the candidate is prohibited from accepting that outside help.

Craddick first denied being involved with the group because he was running for speaker of the Texas House. But legal documents have shown in recent months that Craddick raised money for the group, had his staff distribute money to GOP candidates who supported him, and consulted with the political action committee's associates about their activities.