Many lawmakers failing to report donor information
San Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — The ethics bill Texas lawmakers passed in 2003 contained a simple provision: To more completely report special interest money in the political process, candidates must disclose the occupations and employers of their big donors.
Two-and-a-half years after it took effect, many Texas lawmakers appear unable — or unwilling — to follow a law of their own making.
Collectively, they received failing grades in a recent report, "Ain't Nobody's Business," by the Austin-based watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.
Only eight of the House's 150 members received an A, while 89 got an F. Only three of the Senate's 31 members received A's, while 13 got F's.
Among those who flunked were 28 House members and three senators who have failed to report both the occupations and employers of a single one of their large donors since House Bill 1606 took effect in 2004.
That last group included Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
Menendez said he was upset with his accountant; Zaffirini said she had been unaware of the law and that a software program she used listed both categories as optional. Lucio did not return calls for comment.
"People suspect that donors give money and get something in return," said Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice. "(Lawmakers) who think that's not the case should have no objection to providing (full disclosure)."
Democratic lawmakers, who generally tout themselves as champions of tougher ethics laws, fared worse than their Republican counterparts, averaging a grade of F while the GOP eked out a D average.
Rep. Jim Dunnam, leader of the House Democrats, said the party "could do a better job of educating candidates" about the law. But while depicting state Democrats as ardent supports of ethics reforms, he sounded less enthusiastic about this particular one.
The public has other ways to discern the occupations and employers of big campaign contributors, he said.
"You've got their name and address. If you go on Google, you can figure out who they are," said Dunnam, whose C was a better grade than many of his colleagues.
Some have taken issue with the criteria the think tank used in evaluating lawmakers.
Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, lost points for identifying a donor listed as "Hon. Dolph Briscoe" as a ranch owner — and leaving out that he was the governor for six years in the 1970s.
Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris, lost points for identifying his parents, Molly and Frank Homer, as "retired" — without mentioning what they retired from (running a Sonic restaurant franchise).
Three lawmakers, including House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, were cited for identifying one of their big donors, Alice L. Walton, as either a rancher or a self-employed investor — without noting that she is a Wal-Mart heiress.
The Ethics Commission's Tim Sorrells said the law requires only the current occupation of donors, not what they did in the past — or their family lineage.
Wheat acknowledged that there was room to quibble, and said what concerned him most were the folks who consistently failed to divulge the most basic information.
Several lawmakers vowed to catch up. Zaffirini, for example, said she has hired a temporary employee to redo old reports.
Menendez said he gave his accountant a little scolding.
"I could have easily gotten a college intern to do this, and they could have done it just as badly," he said, adding that he would redo old reports.
Rep. Joseph Deshotel, D-Beaumont, the one lawmaker to pull a perfect score for fully reporting the one major contribution he received, said he would urge his colleagues to do better.
"I'd let 'em know that I got 100 and ask, 'What did you get?'"