February 24, 2005
Nixon files bill to weaken ethics rules

State Rep. Joe Nixon wants to be the champion of compulsory charity.

The House Elections Committee on Wednesday heard a bill by Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, that is meant to overturn Texas Ethics Commission opinions that Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, ran into when he tried to host a lobby pheasant hunting trip last December.

Swinford had bought the birds and reserved the hotel rooms for his annual lobby pheasant hunt to raise money for his political account. Then he discovered the hunt date was set for after the 30-day cutoff when legislators are prohibited from raising political money prior to a legislative session.

So Swinford tried to change the event into a fund-raiser for his local 4-H Club with his name on the invitation.

That's when Swinford discovered ethics commission opinions for 1992, 1993 and 2000 that say it is a violation of the state penal and lobby laws for a public official to solicit a charitable donation to be made in his own name.

"The only difference was my name was on the invitation. Otherwise, that 4-H Club has hunts all the time. The issue was my name being on the invitation was going to mess us up," Swinford said.

Swinford said he had the hunt, but no one was charged.

Nixon's bill says a charitable donation solicited by a public official would not be considered a political donation, a benefit to the official or "an expenditure made to influence" legislative or administrative action.

"If I say ... 'Give money to the Boy Scouts,' that could be an ethics violation. That's nuts. I can't put on an apron and sell pancakes at my church," Nixon said.

However, the ethics opinion is not that simple.

Ethics Advisory Opinion 427 from 2003 says a public official may legally solicit contributions for a charity so long as the money goes directly to the charity and is not made in the official's name. The opinion also says an unsolicited donation may be made to a charity in an official's name.

The opinion said it is only when the official raises the money, controls the money or has the money donated in his or her name that state law is violated by becoming a benefit for the official.

Nixon said the opinion would halt Speaker Tom Craddick's annual golf tournament to raise money for children's charities. He said the tournament last year raised $150,000.

To be blunt, Nixon's reasoning is crap. The point of the Ethics Commission's opinion is to ensure that charitable events remain about the charities and not about their sponsors. Note that he didn't claim that the opinion did halt Craddick's golf tournament - he said it would halt it. How is that so if the opinions were given between 1992 and 2000 and Craddick did his thing last year?

The issue here is very basic. Charitable donations do not have to be publicly reported. If Nixon has his way, then any politician can use the guise of charity to solicit large contributions made in secret. I fail to see how less disclosure in these matters is in any way preferable. It's fascinating how there can be this kind of push at the same time as the push to tighten regulations and raise ethical standards. Who will win? Whether he likes it or not, I think Tom Craddick is going to have to take a side sooner or later. Then maybe we'll know.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 24, 2005 to Scandalized! | TrackBack