Friday, February 18, 2005

Denny's House Bill 913 would require pesky prosecutors to seek the permission of the toothless Texas Ethics Commission before they could seek indictments for violation of campaign-finance laws.

Legislation would check prosecutors

Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle
Friday, February 18, 2005

It sounds like the kind of bill a goofball legislator drops into the hopper just to get attention or to please a major contributor.

One of those hundreds of bills per session that dies of terminal silliness.

But then you notice that the author not only chairs an important committee but is close to the speaker of the House.

That's why we can't just laugh off a proposed law filed by Rep. Mary Denny, R-Flower Mound, that would provide a major exception to the Legislature's tough-on-crime posturing.

That exception? Why, crimes involving politicians, of course.

Denny's House Bill 913 would require pesky prosecutors to seek the permission of the toothless Texas Ethics Commission before they could seek indictments for violation of campaign-finance laws.

They are felonies

Actually, there aren't that many pesky prosecutors trying to enforce campaign-finance laws. But there is Travis County DA Ronnie Earle.

He has indicted several political operatives and corporations, accusing them of funneling large amounts of corporate funds to Texas House candidates in 2001.

These are not insignificant charges. They are felonies. The official policy of Texas is that we do not want corporations or labor unions buying our elections.

Earle's continuing investigation centers on money funneled through an entity called Texans for a Republican Majority, which was associated with Congressman Tom DeLay. The PAC supported candidates who would vote for state Rep. Tom Craddick to become speaker of the House, an effort that succeeded.

Craddick then delivered on DeLay's desire for an extraordinary, mid-decade redistricting that gave Republicans five more members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

It has been reported that Earle is investigating Craddick's relationship to the TRMPAC effort. The speaker says he is innocent.

Roadblock for prosecutors

If Denny's bill were to become law, requiring Ethics Commission permission before campaign-finance laws could be enforced, Craddick and other politicians wouldn't have to worry about the likes of Earle.

Earle is elected by voters. The Ethics Commission is eight men and women appointed by the governor (four), the lieutenant governor (two) and the speaker of the house (two).

The commission is, by law, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. They have the power to investigate campaign-finance violations, but before staff can so much as subpoena a witness or documents, it must get six commissioners to agree.

Commissioners meet every other month, and not all members always show up.

No wonder they have, in dealing with more than 1,000 complaints in the past 13 years, never issued a subpoena. Nor have they ever referred a case for criminal prosecution.

Under Denny's proposed law, the commission would set up a special office to review cases presented by prosecutors.

No peace officer could refer a case to a prosecutor without notifying the special office, and no prosecutor could go to trial without presenting his evidence to the special office.

The special office would have 45 days to advise a prosecutor whether it felt a law had been violated. If it said it found no violation, the prosecutor could not proceed with a case.

The law presents a constitutional issue. Prosecutors are part of the judicial branch of Texas government, and they are elected by voters.

Denny would protect politicians by subjecting prosecutors to supervision by an agency of the executive branch, whose governors are appointed by politicians.

Denny didn't return a phone call Thursday afternoon, but she has told other reporters that the bill was actually meant to assist enforcement of campaign laws, not hinder it.

She said it was not her intention to give the Ethics Commission a veto over prosecutions, which makes one wonder whether she read the bill. The relevant language isn't exactly buried. It's on page 2 and it is, helpfully, underlined.

Still, she may need help. Section 571.204 says that if the special office determines that an offense was not committed, ''a prosecuting attorney may not prosecute a person for the alleged violation."

If that's not what she intended, I'll bet she can fix it.

The bill is before the Elections Committee, which she chairs.