Ethics panel delays gift rulingIt will review letter that urges ban on vague description of donations
September 23, 2006
By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – The Texas Ethics Commission has delayed its decision on whether to allow public officials to continue reporting monetary gifts simply as "check" or "currency," citing a letter from Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle advising them to ban the practice.
Mr. Earle invoked a legal principle upheld by Texas courts that gives the commission authority to write its own rule if following the letter of the law produces "an absurd result" – such as, he said, a $50,000 gift to a public official being described in ethics reports as simply a "check."
Commissioners said Friday that they want time to review the letter – although the panel's vice chairman, Raymond "Tripp" Davenport III of Dallas, said it holds "as much legal weight as that of a two-year law student who flunked out of UT."
Mr. Earle's office includes the state public-integrity unit, which prosecutes wrongdoing by elected officials.
"The letter raises a lot of legal issues that our staff hasn't had the chance to digest," said Commissioner Ross Fischer.
The board, which is split on whether it has the authority to interpret the intent of state ethics laws and write a clarifying rule regarding descriptions of gifts, agreed unanimously to address the issue again on Dec. 1.
Mr. Davenport said "an obscene loophole" allowed Bill Ceverha, an appointee to the Employee Retirement System board, to report two $50,000 gifts from a Houston political donor simply as a "check."
But, he said, the commission can't do anything unless the Legislature tightens its own laws.
The law says a public official must "describe" a gift in his personal financial statement. The board so far has said it can't compel public officials to describe monetary gifts in anything other than the vaguest terms.
The legal standard referred to as the "absurd result principle" could be invoked by a state agency or commission if the law "truly and literally" results in an outlandish – and clearly unintended – result, said J. Woodfin "Woodie" Jones, a former appellate judge who wrote an oft-cited Texas Law Review article on the principle about 10 years ago.
The standard has been recognized by the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals for several decades, most recently in a 1991 drug case.
"State agencies do interpret statutes fairly commonly," said Mr. Woodfin, adding that he wasn't familiar with the specifics of the gift-description debate.
Some commissioners said Friday that the idea that hundreds of dollars could be described in disclosure reports as "pieces of green paper" certainly fits the definition of "absurd."
"The only way to describe money is by putting how much is there," said Commissioner Nick Taylor. "Common sense tells you that."
Critics accuse the commission of sidestepping hard questions and say the board has the authority to interpret the laws as they were intended, not just as they were written.
"The TEC, whose job it is to open up government to sunshine, is trying to bury corruption in a dark hole," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
Mr. Fischer said that if ethics enforcement is to become stronger, lawmakers must strengthen the Ethics Commission's powers.
"It's frustrating to pick up a paper, be called 'toothless' and then be criticized for not doing more," Mr. Fischer said. "If we were given the tools to do our job, I know we'd do it. But we haven't been given the tools."