The Texas Ethics Commission decided Friday that public officials who receive cash or other gifts don't have to disclose the value, stunning open-government advocates.
"This is absurd, dangerous and completely undermines the reform legislation," said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth.
The seven commission members, appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, wrestled with disclosure laws that compel public officials to report gifts over $250. The law calls for a description of the gift, and some commissioners said indicating simply "cash" – without an amount – satisfies the statute.
But government watchdogs told the commissioners that they are failing to enforce the clear meaning of the law, rendering it useless.
"This ruling leaves a big enough loophole to drive an armored truck full of money through," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, which advocates for public disclosure. "All you would have to say is 'a truck.' "
The case stems from a June 2005 disclosure filed by Dallas businessman Bill Ceverha, a close friend of House Speaker Tom Craddick, who appointed him to the State Employees Retirement System board. The system oversees a nearly $20 billion fund that provides benefits for 250,000 retired state workers.
Mr. Ceverha disclosed that he received a gift, described only as a "check," from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, the largest Republican donor in the state. Mr. Ceverha has declined to say how much the check was for. Mr. Perry's spokesman has described it as charitable – not political – giving.
A commission staff ruling held that Mr. Ceverha's description of the gift as a "check" was sufficient. And in its decision Friday, the Ethics Commission refused to revisit the rule or its interpretation.
All the commissioners who spoke agreed this constitutes an egregious loophole. But three commissioners blocked the possibility of a different interpretation, saying it is up to the Legislature to clarify the law. Six of seven commissioners must agree before a rule can be reconsidered.
Here's the statement by Rep. Lon Bunham, who testified before the TEC on this matter:
Today, the Texas Ethics Commission did a disservice to the people of Texas. Their misinterpretation of current disclosure law, followed by their inaction today, will continue to allow any public official to accept a cash gift without disclosing the amount.
Under this misguided opinion, any appointee, commission or board member could literally accept a $1,000,000 check and simply write 'check' on their disclosure form.
The Ethics Commission is charged with ensuring disclosure laws are upheld. Today, they failed.
I do, however, want to thank Chairman Looney and Commissioners Taylor, Harrison, and Montagne for their votes in favor of transparent and open government. Had the other commissioners voted with these four members, the public interest would have been better served.
I am very pleased that some of the Commissioners insisted that this item be on the agenda again next month.