The Texas Ethics Commission has been criticized for timidly enforcing campaign, lobbying and officeholder rules — and for issuing measly fines that did little to prompt better behavior.
That's changing, however. Just ask Jerry Eversole.
The Harris County Commissioner received a $75,000 fine this summer amid accusations that he used political funds for personal expenses.
It was by far the costliest penalty in the commission's history — but also evidence of a trend towards heftier fines, according to records analyzed by The Texas Tribune.
The commission, for example, levied more than $136,000 in fines last year against both local and state officials who ran afoul of the elections and government codes. That's nearly double the total from 2004 to 2006 combined.
By every measure, the agency is issuing more — and larger — fines, the records show.
"There's been a shift to focus more on enforcement and compliance," said the commission's chairman, San Antonio lawyer Ross Fischer.
He and others who know the agency believe a combination of factors are driving the trend, including technological advancements that make it easy for the public to access and analyze records they previously couldn't see. (The commission's fine collections, it should be noted, go into the state's general revenue pool, not the agency's budget).
The commissioners are also receiving many more sworn complaints than they have in years past, especially during election years. In 2000, for example, 93 complaints were filed. Last year there were 388.
Citizens and activists now have more access to campaign-finance and lobbying records, and they are more aware of the commission's complaint procedures, leading to more enforcement.
"The public expects the regulated community to follow the law," said Natalia Ashley, the commission's general counsel. "The general increase in the fines assessed by the commission is a reflection of the increase in complaints by the public."
While the number of complaints prompts a correlating spike in annual fine totals, the average fine amount is growing as well. The average fine in 2004 was $268. Last year it was $1,500.
Even that's not enough, some believe, to stop officials from masking campaign-related transactions with incomplete or inaccurate descriptions.
"I don't have a sense that this is a major sea change for the commission," said Andy Wilson with Public Citizen Texas. "It's still not enough of a deterrent to really change a lot of behavior."
In some cases, for example, officials have simply paid their fines with campaign funds. Eversole, who agreed to the commission's enforcement order but didn't formally admit that he broke the rules, had to pay with his own money.
The commission, of course, is operating on rules crafted from laws passed by members of the Legislature — the folks among the most likely to face investigations and fines.
And not all of them think the system works.
State Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, received a $1,000 fine for listing a $25,000 contribution from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, as "B Perry". He also failed to disclose Perry's occupation and title.
Both pieces of information are required for large contributors, according to state law, and watchdogs would argue that officials could skirt full disclosure by submitting partially completed filings.
Edwards calls it "nitpicking."
"They should get the information — the reporting should be thorough — but it doesn't have to be to the extent that they are doing," he said of the commission. "The Legislature needs to go through and make sure they're not going overboard."
The commission's top lawyer notes, though, that the agency is just following the law.
"One thing that the commission always aims to do is make sure that the fines are consistent and fair, and always within the statutory guidelines provided by the Legislature," Ashley said.
The commission also stresses that it tries to educate elected officials, candidates and lobbyists on the rules, answering telephone questions and making how-to guides available online. The commission also host information sessions and public hearings about rule changes.
The commission also is considering new rules that could clarify for candidates how specifically they should list their campaign expenditures, an issue that the agency noting in fining Eversole.
"The commission will provide legal and technical assistance to anyone who calls," Fischer said. "We try to do that to help them on the front end so we don't find ourselves in an enforcement role."