February 10, 2005
First attempt to neuter Ronnie Earle

A bill has been filed to give the Texas Ethics Commission power to veto any investigation into electoral code violations by district attorneys.

Rep. Mary Denny, R–Aubrey, chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, would create an office under the state commission to conduct election code violation investigations such as Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's two-year investigation of the Texas Association of Business, Texans for a Republican Majority and Craddick.

House Bill 913 would prohibit a prosecutor from pursuing charges if the state office determines there is no criminal offense.

Shannon Edmonds with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association said the group is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the legislation but added, "It seems to keep prosecutors from prosecuting crimes."

I can think of at least three reasons why this is a bad idea.

One, as the story notes, the Texas Ethics Commission doesn't have a whole lot of juice:

Craig McDonald with Texans for Public Justice said the Ethics Commission, appointed by state officials and split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, is not known for taking action against officials.

"I think it's incumbent politicians circling the wagons to protect themselves from prosecution," McDonald said. "It puts a roadblock in the way of local prosecutors, who should have a free hand in prosecuting violations of the law."

The Ethics Commission, created in 1991, has civil authority over election code violations and can refer criminal complaints to prosecutors. The agency, however, has never subpoenaed a witness or documents to investigate a complaint or referred a criminal case.

The reason that the TEC has "never subpoenaed a witness or documents to investigate a complaint" has to do with the conditions under which the TEC was created. Take a look at Chapter 571, Section 140 of the Government Code, and note Subsection (d):

In addition to other penalties, a person who discloses
information made confidential by this section is civilly liable to
the respondent in an amount equal to the greater of $10,000 or the
amount of actual damages incurred by the respondent, including
court costs and attorney fees.

One of the things Mickey Jo Lawrence said in her address to the Clean Up Texas Politics forum here in Houston was that TEC commissioners have interpreted the confidentiality requirements of Section 571.140 to mean that they can't disclose anything to anybody, which in turn is why they've never called a witness to investigate a complaint. Basically, if they couldn't determine guilt from the documents that were submitted to them, they dismissed the charges. She indicated that things were (very slowly) beginning to change, but the basic point remains. The TEC doesn't believe it has the power to do any actual investigating, so how can it offer any real input as to what a DA somewhere is doing?

Point two is related to this. The TEC, which has the power to sanction wrongdoing by members of the Legislature, is funded by the Legislature. They fear, with some justification, biting the hand that feeds them. This makes them less than fully independent, and as such adding their oversight to this process would politicize it more, not less.

Finally, what other kind of criminal activity requires an outside body to approve an investigation by a DA's office? Shannon Edmonds got it in one - this is designed to hinder prosecutions. If the Lege doesn't like the laws that they themselves passed to regulate their own actions (and those of their colleagues in Congress), then they should move to change those laws. The reason they're not doing that is because they know full well it wouldn't be popular. This is the easy way out.

As I've said before, one can reasonably make the case that violations of the electoral code should be investigated and prosecuted by the Attorney General instead of 254 district attorneys. I'd be very wary of any such proposals at this time because of the obvious partisan connections to the ongoing TRM/TAB cases, but those concerns could be addressed. I see no value at all in this bill, and I hope it dies the quick death it deserves. Via The Daily DeLay.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 10, 2005 to Scandalized! | TrackBack

This is a good bill. Mr Earl is going after a good Christian man when he goes after the honorable Tom Delay. Mr Delay is working for his God and this country which is drowning in the filth of other religions. May this be only the first of many bills to protect this great man.
Byron Garland, USMC
Dial, Ga

Posted by: Byron Garland on February 11, 2005 12:19 PM

This bill may have some negative aspects to it but something must be done to keep public officials such as Mr. Earle from abusing their office and needlessly costing the legal system time and money for their personal witch hunts. His behavior in the fabricated case against Kay Bailey Hutchinson was despicable -- indicting her 3 times and then refusing to present his case to the court when he had opportunity -- then inviting the press to his hotel where he laid out what he wanted them to see, thereby showing his lack of respect for the legal system while trying his case in the court of public opinion. (He also leaked secret grand jury testimony to the press.) So, here he goes again, making a mockery of our legal system under the guise of being its servant.

Posted by: Douglas Runyan on September 28, 2005 4:08 PM