April 30, 2003
Public Citizen Calls on House to Pass Landmark Ethics, Campaign Reform Bill
AUSTIN – Public Citizen today called on the House to pass CSHB 1606, a major campaign and ethics reform bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas that takes a large step toward ending the dirty-money scandals that perennially plague the Capitol.
“This bill is the biggest step we’ve seen in over a decade toward cleaning up the Capitol,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen. “The votes on this bill will show the mettle of any legislator’s commitment to reform.”
One of the most significant reforms in the bill, which is scheduled to be heard by the House on Thursday, is the prohibition of hiring legislators who are lawyers to represent clients before state agencies. Not only would this eliminate a basic conflict of interest, but it would prevent people involved in lawsuits from taking advantage of a practice known as a “legislative continuance.”
Legislative continuances give defendants in a trial or civil suit up to a six-month delay in the trial if they hire a legislator when the legislative session is approaching. Defendants may wait until 10 days before the trial to do so, and some high-profile defendants have done just that. This privilege has been exploited by everyone from drug companies sued by terminal patients with months to live to convicted spouse abusers who want to delay jail time.
“It’s time we shut this back door way to delay justice,” Smith said. “While many legislators have used these continuances sparingly, a few have abused the process and traded their privilege of legislative continuances for large fees.”
Legislators using their special clout to represent clients before state agencies has also been on ongoing problem, although a Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Texans support ending the practice.
“Imagine how disillusioning it would be to have confided your concerns to your local state senator about a pending permit that would allow a group of commercial dairies to dump directly into your river — only to show up at the hearing and find the same senator representing the dairies and now he knows all your arguments,” said Travis Brown of Public Citizen, who faced that exact problem as a citizen activist. “Such legislators have final say in the policy and budget of the agencies they appear before, and as a result can intimidate the staff and the boards of those agencies. There is no clearer conflict-of-interest.”
Both practices are used only by a slim minority of legislators. A recent Public Citizen study of state records showed that only 12 of the current 181 members appeared before state agencies between 1999 and 2001, although some have made quite a living off the practice: A few earned over $50,000 doing it in 2001, which does not include extra money paid for “consulting” or other representation services. Clients spending such sums buy not just the lawyer, but the legislator as well; members representing clients often sponsor legislation custom-tailored for their clients. One legislator appearing before the Texas Water Commission told members to postpone their ruling because a bill had been introduced that would change the regulations affecting his clients. He was referring to his own legislation.
“The minority of legislators who unscrupulously practice these ‘rent-a-legislator’ tactics have given the entire body a black eye,” Smith said. “It’s time the majority of legislators who are ethical enact real reform and stop protecting the few who abuse these privileges.”
Other major reforms in the bill include:
- The Texas Ethics Commission. The legislation gives some teeth to the state ethics watchdog. The bill streamlines the investigation and resolution process, unshackles the investigating staff from crippling restrictions, requires the commission to perform random audits of campaign finance reports and removes the “hard-six” supermajority vote required to take action on many items.
- Campaign Finance Reform. The bill extends the ban on fundraising during the legislative session through the governor’s veto period and ends the “luddite loophole,” which allows campaigns that raise more than $50,000 to claim that they did not use computers to keep track of their finances and thus avoid filing electronic reports the public can access easily online. The bill also requires candidates for county chairs of political parties in counties with more than 400,000 people to file campaign finance reports with the TEC, and requires district judges and district attorneys to file electronically.
- Speaker’s Race. The bill requires an official declaration of candidacy and limits fundraising.
- State Official’s Financial Disclosure. Public disclosure of an official’s financial interests is the first safeguard against conflicts of interest. Under the bill, disclosure forms for state officials must now include information about mutual funds, blind trusts and the addresses of real property.
- Municipal Government Ethics. The bill requires personal financial disclosures by municipal officials, which will better reveal conflicts of interest before they occur.
- Ethics for State Officials. The bill provides sorely needed strengthening to the conflict-of-interest standard for state officials — essential because a recent Center for Public Integrity study found that 33 percent of legislators sit on committees that regulate their professional or business interest. The old standard was so narrow it was unenforceable. Also, the bill provides, for the first time, a penalty for violating the ethics code for state officials. Currently, compliance is merely a suggestion.