Ethics Commission Backs Off Investigative Power Plan

Texas Capitol's dome
Texas Capitol's dome

The Texas Ethics Commission backed away Thursday from a controversial proposal to take certain investigative authority away from the Travis County district attorney’s office, but the agency approved two recommendations aimed at enhancing criminal inquiries of state elected officials.

The draft proposal to ask the Legislature to take investigative power away from those local prosecutors — and give it to an agency that has often been described as weak and ineffective — sparked outrage from government watchdogs and strong opposition from the Travis County DA’s office.

It also drew unusually strong condemnation from one of the eight Ethics Commission members, Tom Harrison. A letter from Harrison, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting, was read aloud by fellow Commissioner Tom Ramsay. In it, Harrison argued that making the commission the lead prosecutor of state elected officials would frustrate its “primary purpose” and set up a statutory conflict of interest. 

“Members of the commission are appointed by elected state leaders and would be enforcing criminal actions against those same elected officials,” Harrison wrote, according to Ramsay. “If it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it.”

In face of stiff opposition, Jim Clancy, one of the commissioners who had made the proposal, quickly backed off and said the intent was never to gut the Travis DA’s budget and power. But he said the commission needs more money and authority to to pursue serious corruption allegations. 

Threats to weaken the local prosecutor’s role in public corruption cases, particularly when some powerful leader gets in the crosshairs, crop up periodically, but they've never gotten very far.

The initial Ethics Commission proposal sought approval from the Legislature to transfer "certain existing investigative and prosecutorial authority and budget" from the Travis County DA's office to the Ethics Commission. Clancy then offered a proposal seeking more resources “to improve the commission’s ability to investigate and enforce material violations of the laws under its jurisdiction.”

That recommendation was unanimously approved, along with several others designed to beef up the agency’s role in policing unethical behavior among state elected officials. One of the proposals, for example, would allow the commission to share information it gathers from the sworn complaint process.

The Legislature, in an effort to keep complaints about its members under wraps, made it difficult for the commission to share information it gathers on elected officials with prosecutors. There are stiff criminal and civil penalties for those who violate the confidentiality provisions. 

“There have been some somewhat draconian confidentiality provisions,” said Gregg Cox, assistant Travis County district attorney and director of the Public Integrity Unit that focuses on public corruption. “That’s been a barrier to them working with us and referring cases to us.”

Though the commission routinely receives complaints that are potentially criminal in nature, Cox said he had never received a formal referral from the commission.

All of the proposals to beef up the commission's authority will have to be passed by the very Legislature that hasn't shown much appetite for ethics reform, so their fate is uncertain.

In other ethics-related news Thursday, a Democrat-aligned group publicly called on the Travis County DA’s office to investigate several public funds that it says Gov. Rick Perry has used to reward his donors.

The Progress Texas Political Action Committee cited investigative reports by The Dallas Morning News, which has found that millions of dollars in grants and awards from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, the Emerging Technology Fund and the Texas Enterprise Fund have gone to the governor's friends and campaign donors. In the case of the cancer institute, several high-profile scientists have resigned in protest, saying they fear politics is playing a role in the awarding of cancer research grants. 

“Taxpayers have a right to know if there is something worse than bad judgment at work in this process,” said PAC director Glenn Smith. “The numbers clearly indicate the best way to get Texas to invest in your business is to make a nice campaign donation to the governor.” 

Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said criticism of the programs was the work of "conspiracy theorists." 

"Blanket attacks on our state’s successful incentive programs fail to understand that they are authorized, overseen and held accountable by the members of the Texas Legislature, and follow detailed compliance and reporting requirements as outlined by lawmakers," Frazier said.

She said legislative leaders would ensure the success and transparency of the programs, calling them "an important part of our state’s status as a national economic leader, bringing jobs, economic investment and innovative, life-saving technologies that make Texans' lives better."

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