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“Groundless” campaign finance complaints

I’m a bit wary of this.

The House tentatively approved Rep. Will Hartnett’s proposal to hold people liable who file false and “groundless” complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission just before an election.

Today’s 84-54 second-reading vote gave a tentative green light to House Bill 677. If passed, members of the public and candidates who file complaints with the Ethics Commission 30 days before an election would be responsible for the subject of the complaint’s defense fees if the commission finds the claims incorrect, “groundless” and “frivolous.”

The idea is to discourage the use of media coverage to change an election, said Hartnett, R-Dallas. Since it takes the commission several weeks to investigate a claim, political opponents often file a complaint and leak the document to the press, resulting in headlines, altered public perception and frequently, a new victor in the election, the representative said.

“If it’s a good complaint, they can file it without any concern,” Hartnett said. “You only have to pay the attorney’s fees if the claims are groundless.”

But many lawmakers said the proposal could have a “chilling effect” on legitimate complaints. The reason, said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Burleson, is that people will have to consider the financial repercussions if their claim turns out to be wrong, since terms like “groundless” are not legally defined.

“There’s no way to predict what the Ethics Commission is going to do,” Turner said. “It sets up a barrier to the public to hold us accountable.”

Though the story says a “member of the public” could be held liable, the text of the bill limits it to:

(A) a candidate in the election;
(B) a specific-purpose committee, as defined by Section 251.001, Election Code, that supports only a candidate in the election; or
(C) the campaign treasurer of a committee described by Paragraph (B).

That somewhat lessens my concern. As John Coby noted back in January that leaves a lot of room:

Unfortunately this will not stop complaints filed prior to an election since a PAC or campaign can ask someone not affiliated with the PAC or campaign to file the bill and this person would not come under this bill. If this bill was modified to include everyone, it will pretty much stop anyone from filing a complaint.

I can see where Rep. Hartnett is coming from on this, and I can see Rep. Turner’s objections. Ultimately, I don’t know how much effect a bill like this might have, one way or another.

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