Lawmakers need not claim amount of giftsState ethics panel says legislators have to give descriptions -- not amounts
Friday, March 24, 2006
By CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – The Texas Ethics Commission decided Friday that public officials who receive cash or other gifts don't have to disclose the value, stunning open-government advocates.
"This is absurd, dangerous and completely undermines the reform legislation," said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth.
The seven commission members, appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, wrestled with disclosure laws that compel public officials to report gifts over $250. The law calls for a description of the gift, and some commissioners said indicating simply "cash" – without an amount – satisfies the statute.
But government watchdogs told the commissioners that they are failing to enforce the clear meaning of the law, rendering it useless.
"This ruling leaves a big enough loophole to drive an armored truck full of money through," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, which advocates for public disclosure. "All you would have to say is 'a truck.' "
The commission's decision not to review the rule means that public officeholders can accept trips, jewelry or large amounts of cash from those who may benefit from their decisions and not have to disclose the value.
The case stems from a June 2005 disclosure filed by Dallas businessman Bill Ceverha, a close friend of House Speaker Tom Craddick, who appointed him to the State Employees Retirement System board. The system oversees a nearly $20 billion fund that provides benefits for 250,000 retired state workers.
Mr. Ceverha disclosed that he received a gift, described only as a "check," from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, the largest Republican donor in the state. Mr. Ceverha has declined to say how much the check was for. Mr. Perry's spokesman has described it as charitable – not political – giving.
A commission staff ruling held that Mr. Ceverha's description of the gift as a "check" was sufficient. And in its decision Friday, the Ethics Commission refused to revisit the rule or its interpretation.
All the commissioners who spoke agreed this constitutes an egregious loophole. But three commissioners blocked the possibility of a different interpretation, saying it is up to the Legislature to clarify the law. Six of seven commissioners must agree before a rule can be reconsidered.
Commissioner Ross Fischer said other parts of open-government law specify that a value must be disclosed but the gifts section states only that a description be provided. He said it appears the Legislature didn't intend to compel disclosure of the value of gifts. But some commission members were upset by the decision.
"It is a ludicrous position, one that is contrary to the public's interest," said Commissioner Nicholas Taylor of Midland.
Mr. Taylor said a public official who reports receiving a check has only disclosed the method of conveyance, not the gift itself.
Other commissioners said this interpretation means public officials can report receiving 10 pieces of paper without mentioning that they were $100 bills.
Mr. Taylor has placed the same issue on the Ethics Commission agenda for next month, urging fellow commissioners to revisit their decision.
Afterward, Mr. McDonald said he was disappointed.
"Apparently there are not six votes for public disclosure from a commission charged with public disclosure," he said.
Gov. Rick Perry's press secretary, Kathy Walt, said the governor supports disclosure of the amount of gifts, whether that needs to be accomplished through the rules of the commission or by the Legislature next year.
While Mr. Ceverha and Bob Perry have declined to discuss the gift, a recent personal bankruptcy indicates that the check paid for lawyers who represented Mr. Ceverha in a civil suit over improper use of corporate contributions in GOP political races.
In that bankruptcy filing, Mr. Ceverha was asked about the Bob Perry gift and stated that it was all spent to pay his lawyers. He refused to disclose the amount.