Lawmakers File Bill to Widen Financial Disclosure

Bidness as Usual


This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

Updated, 5 p.m.: 

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said she "fully intends" for the disclosure bill to apply to her and her legal clients. "We are working out the details," a spokesman said, "and if language needs to be strengthened to clarify, that will occur."

Updated, 3:40 p.m.: 

 

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has filed companion legislation to a House bill that would dramatically expand the requirements of the state's personal financial disclosure form.

Davis, a lawyer, was criticized in a bruising re-election battle last fall for not being more forthcoming about the various public sector clients her firm, Newby Davis, represents.

Senate Bill 178, which she filed Tuesday, would force lawmakers to report all contracts they, their spouses or their close relatives have with any government entities, from state agencies all the way down to municipal offices, public universities and taxing districts. It would also require lawmakers to report if they or any close family members have more than 50 percent ownership in a business that has a contract with such a government entity. A spokesman for Davis said he didn't know whether she had a 50 percent stake in Newby Davis, or whether the law would require her to report her clients.

The ethics legislation is an interesting twist for Davis, who has insisted that her work as a lawyer does not conflict with her work as a state senator, but has declined requests to identify her public sector clients, citing attorney-client privilege.

“It’s an attorney-client privilege issue and unless and until my clients say to me, 'You are free to disclose that,' I really don’t think that I can,” Davis told a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter last year.

In a statement Tuesday, Davis said she looks forward to working with both chambers to make "meaningful improvements to Texas's ethics laws this session."

"Currently, similar disclosure is required of local public officials," Davis said in the statement. "This legislation is a logical next step to centralize the reporting of this information at the Texas Ethics Commission."

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Two freshman legislators — one on the far right, the other on the far left — have filed legislation to dramatically expand the requirements of the state’s personal financial disclosure form.

House Bill 524 by state Reps. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and Mary González, D-Clint, would force lawmakers to report all contracts they, their spouses or their close relatives have with any government entities, from state agencies all the way down to municipal offices, public universities and taxing districts. The disclosure would also require lawmakers to report if they or any close family members have more than 50 percent ownership in a business that has a contract with such a government entity.

Capriglione said the bill — the first filed for both freshmen — is designed to close a gaping hole in the state’s disclosure forms, which haven’t been substantially modernized in two decades.

“It gets to the crux of the distrust between the public and elected officials: Where there’s a lack of transparency, they assume the worst,” Capriglione said. “I want to see who doesn’t vote for this.”

González said the goal isn’t for lawmakers or their relatives to have to give up such contracts. "But those relationships need to be transparent," she added. 

The current disclosure form requires basic reporting on property holdings, broad ranges of stocks and mutual funds, and sources of income, from employment to business interests. It also requires reporting of gifts — which relatively few lawmakers denote — and interest in common with lobbyists, though the lobbyists do not have to be named. 

The measure filed by Capriglione and González would also require lawmakers to report contracts with government entities on behalf of themselves, their spouses and some of their blood relatives, from children to siblings. The bill would not apply to federal government contracts. But it would apply to all other government contracts, like consulting or engineering agreements with hospital and water districts and business before local community colleges.

The lawmaker would have to report the exact amount of the contract in the preceding year down to dollars and cents, Capriglione said, unlike the outdated ranges they currently have to report on financial disclosure forms for things like stocks and mutual funds.

The measure would not provide an exception for lawyer lawmakers, who argue they are prohibited by attorney-client privilege from reporting their public-sector clients. Capriglione says taxpayer-funded entities that knowingly hire lawyers who are lawmakers to represent them should have to waive that privilege.

Both lawmakers acknowledge moving the bill will be challenging; they’re new to the Legislature, and more senior members have been loath to tighten up the disclosure forms in sessions past. They hope the fact that they’re polar opposites on the political spectrum could give them a credibility boost.

“Transparency and ethics," González said, "are bipartisan issues." 

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