Ethics rules in debate: Activists want public officials to file value of gifts, not just descriptionsFarran Powell-Daily Texan
Published: July 13, 2006
Updated: January 9, 2009
The fundraising committee that former Rep. Tom DeLay used to help catapult him into the Republican leadership and launch the GOP redistricting effort in Texas has been fined for violating campaign finance laws.
The action by the Federal Election Commission marks the latest in a series of ethics problems dogging Mr. DeLay, who quit Congress in June and faces felony money-laundering charges.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, denounces the House Ethics Committee at the Capital Wednesday. Rep. Burnam and his associates are investigating how House members report gifts.
The Texas Ethics Commission is being pressured to make public officials disclose the amount of money they receive.
Open government advocates, who filed a lawsuit against the commission, said they want the commission to enforce a law requiring public officials to file the monetary value of gifts, attorney Randall Buck Wood said on Wednesday.
"The commission has never ruled on an official opinion on how to describe a gift of money," Wood said. "What we're doing is asking for an official opinion."
Texas law requires officials to file personal financial disclosure statements and declare gift amounts worth more than $250. The commission ruled in March 2006 that officials don't need to disclose the monetary values of gifts, only the description of the gift.
Under the current system, a gift of $1 million can be described as "an envelope full of paper," Wood said. "Frankly folks, this is ridiculous."
Government watchdog groups said the commission is failing to enforce the meaning of the law.
"If they're going to make the law in this manner, then there's a change that needs to be made," said John "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen's Texas office.
The debate over public officials' financial disclosure stems from a 2005 case involving Bill Ceverha, a board member of the Employees Retirement System of Texas. Ceverha described a $50,000 gift he received from Bob Perry, the state's largest GOP donor, as only a "check" in his financial disclosure.
The commission decided in favor of Ceverha's description and voted against establishing a rule to enforce public officials' disclosure of gift amounts.
"We filed suit after they refused to issue a rule," Wood said.
Other open government advocates for establishing public disclosure include individuals and organizations such as state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, Common Cause Texas and the League of Women Voters. Advocates plan to submit a legal draft to the commission this week, requesting a formal opinion, said Doug Lewin, a spokesman for Burnam.
The commission will have 60 days to formulate an opinion after it receives the draft.
Critics of the commission said that the enforcement of a public official's financial disclosure is not the only problem.
There hasn't been a "peep" from the people who appointed the commissioners, Wood said.
"The method of election of committee members worked for a while but doesn't seem to be working anymore," Wood said.
Two of the commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, Raymond Davenport and Ross Fischer voted against the rule for public disclosure.
Perry's office could not be reached for comment.
"We have to put some teeth back into the ethics commission," Smith said. "My sense is that it's a very hot issue, and it will tell a lot about their marching orders on how they rule."
If the commission fails to adopt an opinion on public disclosure of gift amounts, the issue could be a hot topic in the governor's race, said Suzy Woodford, director of Common Cause Texas, a non-partisan, government watchdog organization.
The Texas State Ethics Commission will hold its next meeting on Friday in room E1.010 at the Capitol Extension at 9 a.m.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.