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Ethics Opinion Lets Lawmakers Work, Solicit for Nonprofits

The Texas Ethics Commission's board has approved an advisory opinion that stops short of recommending against lawmakers soliciting contributions for nonprofit organizations they are employed by.

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Bidness as Usual

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

In a unanimous decision on Thursday, the Texas Ethics Commission's board approved an amended advisory opinion that stopped short of recommending against lawmakers soliciting contributions for nonprofit organizations they are employed by. Instead, the opinion encourages lawmakers to understand that such contributions "could be viewed as improper under certain circumstances."

The opinion was designed to address three main issues: Is it legal for a lawmaker to be compensated by a nonprofit organization? Can a lawmaker legally solicit donations for such an organization? And, finally, is seeking those donations something lawmakers should do, if they are employed by the nonprofit?

Ethics Commission lawyers, who drafted the original opinion, felt that the first two were legal, but said lawmakers shouldn't seek donations for the non-profit if they were also employed by it.

Commissioners felt this was too harsh. 

"I run a nonprofit, and this kind of opinion presumes I am inclined to break the law," said Commissioner Hugh Akin. Akin disagreed with the idea of singling out lawmakers working in charitable or nonprofit environments, because they are "already not making much anyway." In the amended opinion they approved, commissioners removed an entire paragraph that detailed why ethics lawyers felt lawmakers working for nonprofits should not solicit donations, and softened all language that said so.

The commission originally drafted the opinion at the request of state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who heads a nonprofit called Torch of Freedom, a leadership training organization that hosts and trains high school and college students through mock government exercises at the Capitol. Krause said he didn't see anything wrong with soliciting for donations, but he wanted the support of the commission on the issue.

Krause, who made an appearance at the meeting, worried the commission's lawyers' original draft of the opinion would've put lawmakers in a difficult position. 

"I would have read it as 'I shall not do that,' not that 'I should not do that,'" Krause said.

Although the advisory opinion was originally tabled by the board back in November and sent back to the Ethics Commission for revision, no changes were made to the text used on Thursday. The opinion addressed today was identical to the one from last year.

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