Agency OKs gift disclosureWatchdog group says ex-PAC official ruling diminishes ethics law
January 31, 2006
By PETE SLOVER / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – A Dallas businessman who sits on the state employees' retirement board does not need to reveal the size of a monetary gift from the biggest GOP donor in the state, the state ethics agency has ruled.
The approval was given to Bill Ceverha, who on his state financial disclosure form last year used the single word "check" to describe a gift made by Houston homebuilder Bob Perry.
Texans for Public Justice, the group that asked the ethics commission to order more detail from Mr. Ceverha, said the decision renders the law requiring disclosure of gifts meaningless. Trips, cash and other goodies of unknown worth could be veiled within similarly vague descriptions, the group argued.
In a Jan. 26 letter, the commission said that although state ethics laws require officials to disclose any gifts valued over $250, they do not require the value of the gift to be reported.
Mr. Ceverha, who could not be reached for comment, formerly served as treasurer for the Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee, which is now defunct.
The PAC's use of about $600,000 in corporate contributions led to criminal charges against three of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's top lieutenants. Mr. Ceverha, a former state representative, filed for personal bankruptcy last year after losing a lawsuit over the expenditures and being ordered to pay $197,000.
A spokesman for Mr. Perry likened the Ceverha check to charitable – not political – giving.
"Like all Mr. Perry's gifts to orphanages, foster homes and educational foundations, he prefers not to publicize them," said Anthony Holm.
Mr. Ceverha was required to file a public financial disclosure form because he sits on the Texas Employees Retirement System board, which manages benefits for state workers and retirees.
Texans for Public Justice director Craig McDonald said that by not demanding specificity, the Ethics Commission opens the door to public officials categorizing a gift as – for example – a "thing."
"The disclosure becomes almost meaningless," Mr. McDonald said. "All we know is it's more than $250. ... Is it a million? The public has a right to know."
State law allows gifts to public officials in limited circumstances. They are generally illegal if the gift is given to an official who regulates or affects the business of the donor. There are exceptions for gifts exchanged by friends or business acquaintances.
The gift from Mr. Perry has not been detailed by Mr. Ceverha in his personal bankruptcy, said Cristen Feldman, an attorney trying to collect the civil judgment.