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Ronnie Earle gets busier

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is a busy man these days. Not only is he investigating a political committee founded by Tom DeLay, he’s now issuing subpoenas to see if a closed-door legislative meeting violated state law.

Two grand jury subpoenas were issued late in the afternoon by state District Judge Mike Lynch at the request of Earle’s office, and they were served on the chamber’s custodian of records.

The move came one day after news of the secret meeting broke on the House floor and scuttled debate of House Bill 4, a sweeping revision of state civil justice laws. Whether the state’s open meetings law applied to the meeting is debatable.

After a Feb. 26 meeting of the House Civil Practices Committee, which first considered the legislation, Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, invited members into a private coffee room to discuss the legislation. A quorum of the nine-member committee, of which Nixon is chairman, was in the room as Nixon laid out his plans to merge two bills.

The public had no access to the meeting, and no record was kept, leading Democrats to charge that the meeting violated House rules for openness.

The Austin American-Statesman reported Saturday that Earle’s office is trying to decide whether the meeting violated state open meetings law as well. A violation is a misdemeanor punishable by fines of up to $500 and by up to 60 months in jail.

The subpoenas ask for all records, audio and video, of the Feb. 26 committee meeting, as well as all recordings of the House on the day the meeting was revealed.

Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick released a statement on Saturday expressing his commitment to open government and saying that the subpoenaed materials are already part of the public record.

“We are cooperating fully with the district attorney’s subpoena — delivered to the House Custodian of Records at 4:45 p.m. Friday — and will see that these records are delivered Monday morning,” he said in the statement.

The bill in question started out as legislation to deal with rising malpractice insurance rates, but then House Civil Practices Committee Chairman Joe Nixon combines it with another tort-reform measure that had been pushed by business and insurance interests. The newly-reconfigured bill was temporarily delayed by a wide assortment of amendments that were proposed by Democratic lawmakers, all of which were voted down on straight party lines, then it was shelved after a point of order was raised when the secret meeting came to light.

[Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco] based his request that the bill be withdrawn on an affidavit from Rep. Yvonne Davis, a member of the House Civil Practices Committee. Davis said that on Feb. 26 after the committee adjourned, Chairman Joe Nixon said, “Let me talk to the committee just real quickly back in our little coffee room,” a reference to a private room behind the committee room. Nixon, R-Houston, can be heard on a recording posted on the House Web site making the request, Davis said.

Davis, a Democrat from Dallas, said that seven members of the nine-member committee convened in the back room, and Nixon explained his intent to combine House Bill 3, which concerned medical malpractice lawsuits, with HB 4, which limited other civil lawsuits.

On March 4, the committee voted to approve a substitute for HB 4, which contained the medical malpractice provisions. Gov. Rick Perry had made medical malpractice revisions an emergency issue because of rising insurance premiums that were driving some physicians out of business.

Democrats, who criticized the decision to combine the two bills, filed 300 amendments. The House had considered about 50 amendments, defeating most along party-line votes, when the procedural challenge was raised.

[House Speaker Tom] Craddick at first said that he would let the House decide whether the rules had been violated. But after Democrats objected, he made the ruling himself.

As Clay Robison notes, one reason why Rep. Nixon combined House Bill 3, which addressed the medical malpractice issue, and the far-reaching HB4 is that the medical lobby would then be forced to advocate the whole package. Pretty clever, if underhanded. Apparently, HB3 turned out to be a tougher nut to crack than you would have thought after drawing opposition from a group of Christian conservatives who argued that it would lead to more abortions. Republican Senator Bill Ratliff, chair of the Senate Affairs Committee, has also expressed skepticism.

Despite all that, I expect some form of this bill to go forward. It has too many champions who are too far in debt to its interest groups not to. In the meantime, we’ll see if Ronnie Earle can throw a monkey wrench into the works.

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3 Comments

  1. Ron says:

    God bless Ronnie Earle who stands as living proof that not all Texans are redneck zombies…

  2. Michael says:

    I’ll vote for Ronnie Earle! What’s he running for? AG, Lite Gov? Let’s move him up the food chain…

  3. cole says:

    BUSH CANNOT EVEN MANAGE A US DEPRESSION. CNN WAKE UP!!! PLEOPLE HAVE BEEN OUT OF WORK FOR THE LAST 4 YEARS. DON’T BLAME THE US DEPRESSION ON KATRINA OR RITA.

    ITS ALL ABOUT THE BUS ADMINISTRATION!!!

    ALSO, THE REASON BUSH AND DELAY DO NOT WANT STEM CELL RESEARCH IN THE US TO CURE DISEASES IS BECAUSE THE US DRUG COMPANIES HAVE PAID BUSH AND DELAY VERY WELL. (see opensource.org for the details and amounts)