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It’s Time to Beef Up Texas’ Ethics Watchdog

Statement by Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen

It’s time to unshackle Texas’ ethics watchdog and give it some teeth.

A recent study by the  Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity found that when it comes to government openness and accountability, Texas ranks in the lower half of all states.

While the language of the laws received a B- grade in the study, when it came to implementing the laws (or disclosing and enforcing them), Texas got a D+

Among the faults found in the study, four stand out as most egregious: The Lone Star State’s poor financial disclosure laws make it almost impossible to tell when an officeholder has a conflict of interest; lobbyists can make unlimited contributions to legislators to influence policy; contributors or their employees can be appointed to regulatory agencies – and adopt policies to benefits their business interests; and the revolving door is kept spinning by loopholes that allow government officials to go to work for the businesses they regulated or had legislative control.

While Texas should be performing better, the ethics commission isn’t to blame. It has been handcuffed since it started. Instead of policing the politicians, the watchdog is protecting them.

It is time for Texas to get tough on political crimes, stop protecting the politicians and treat the ethics commission as if it were just another professional regulatory agency. The commission should have the authority to take enforcement actions and hear complaints without needing to check in with a board of political appointees.

The Ethics Commission will undergo Sunset review this year. In advance of discussions about necessary reforms for the commission, which are slated for April 10, ethics watchdog groups will make public a comprehensive reform package. It’s time to give Texas the ability to rein in out-of-control, unethical behaviors.

Check out the excellent coverage of this issue by the Texas Tribune

Texas Gets a D+ in Public Integrity Study

Texas: The story behind the score