Sponsor rejects assertion it aims to halt prosecution of campaign law violationsBy CHRISTY HOPPE, Dallas Morning News
February 10, 2005
AUSTIN: A public watchdog group on Wednesday blasted a bill, filed by the House Elections Committee chairwoman, that would allow a state agency to halt the prosecution of campaign-law violations.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, called the bill "the Politician Protection Act" and said it would throw up roadblocks to prosecutors, such as Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, pursuing illegal campaign activities.
Rep. Mary Denny, R-Aubrey, said her bill is being misinterpreted. She intends to encourage local law enforcement to pursue the constable or justice of the peace who repeatedly fails to do things such as file open government paperwork, she said.
"It doesn't have anything to do with Ronnie Earle," Ms. Denny said.
Mr. Earle, a Democrat, has been criticized by state GOP leaders for pursuing indictments against Republican operatives who used corporate money to help legislative races in 2002. It is illegal in Texas to expend corporate money in political races.
Mr. Earle, whose office houses a public integrity unit that can investigate statewide officeholders, said the bill was "a slap in the face of the public" and clearly placed elected officials above the law.
"In a democracy we can't have one law for politicians and another for everybody else," he said. "The people of Texas deserve better than this."
Mr. Earle, who also has prosecuted Democratic officeholders, said the continuing investigation is not politically motivated and is aimed at felony crimes.
Ms. Denny said her bill was not designed to stop any investigation. "If we find out that that's what has happened, that's not the intent of the bill, and we can fix it," she said.
Under the bill, county or district attorneys could not conduct an investigation on their own initiative. He or she would present the case to the Texas Ethics Commission, which would study election laws and determine whether a crime has been committed.
If the Ethics Commission did not recommend criminal charges, "a prosecuting attorney may not prosecute a person for the alleged violation," according to the bill.
Ms. Denny said she wanted to give small, local complaints of campaign violations a forum because district and county attorneys are often too busy with bigger crimes.
She said elections experts at the Ethics Commission could screen the violations. If the complaint were legitimate, the research would help local prosecutors pursue the case. If not, the commission could save local prosecutors the bother of the investigation, she said.
Mr. McDonald said that would be an insurmountable roadblock.
"It would be like district attorneys, before they could get a prosecution of someone for bodily harm, having to go get approval from the state health department," Mr. McDonald said.
The commission, established in 1991, has subpoena powers to investigate allegations of political wrongdoing, but it has never issued a subpoena or recommended a case for criminal prosecution.