Commission to consider adopting staff opinion at meeting Friday.By Laylan Copelin
State officials may continue to take cash gifts without putting the amounts on their annual financial disclosure forms, according to a draft opinion from the Texas Ethics Commission.
The state ethics panel, which is expected to consider adopting the staff opinion at its meeting Friday, said it would ask the Legislature to take up the matter "due to public concern regarding this issue."
The opinion Tuesday reignited months of criticism from Texans for Public Justice and Common Cause, among other groups, who objected to a government appointee, Bill Ceverha, taking $100,000 from Houston home builder Bob Perry.
Initially, Ceverha, who is on the Employee Retirement System board, disclosed that he received the gift without detailing the amount. He eventually revealed it because of the criticism, although the ethics agency consistently has said the law doesn't require such disclosure.
Perry gave Ceverha, a former Dallas lawmaker, the money to help offset his legal bills. Ceverha fought — and eventually lost — a civil lawsuit accusing him of failing to disclose donations to Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee that former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay used to direct corporate gifts from Washington lobbyists to 2002 election efforts.
Perry is the state's largest individual donor, giving millions, mostly to Republican causes, including the Swift Boat Veterans campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
By law, officials must disclose anyone who gives them a gift worth more than $250 and a "description" of the gift. In the opinion, ethics commission lawyers concluded that a description of a gift of money would require only the words "currency," "check" or "money order" and not the amount.
The opinion warns that "pieces of paper" or "envelope" would not be sufficient disclosure to the public.
In the opinion, however, the lawyers noted that they are interpreting the plain language of the statute.
"We cannot add words to the statute, no matter how desirable such additions might seem," the lawyers wrote.
Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, which has been lobbying for rules requiring the full disclosure of cash gifts, called the opinion absurd and dangerous.
"If the Texas Ethics Commission adopts this opinion on Friday, public officials can take millions of dollars in cash and legally write 'currency' on their disclosure forms," McDonald said.