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Irony Abounds in Debate Over Ethics Proposals

In this session's ethics battles, watchdogs say there’s more contradiction than conviction.

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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.

All session long, freshman state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione has been clamoring for greater transparency, trying to force lawmakers and their relatives to disclose their contracts with government agencies and shine a light on closely held state pension benefits. When his first transparency bill got a committee hearing, his senior House colleagues effectively showed him the door.  

But when it came time this week to vote on Senate Bill 346, a measure that would force certain tax-exempt, politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors, Capriglione, R-Southlake, was a “no.”

Capriglione said he voted against the bill — which ultimately passed the House without amendments to ensure its safe arrival to the governor’s desk — because it includes language that exempts labor unions. (It’s terminology the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, had vowed to clean up in an omnibus ethics bill headed to the floor next week.)

“I would have voted for the bill if it didn’t have that exemption,” Capriglione said, “though still with concerns.”

Opposition to the bill from Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative activist whose nonprofit Texans for Fiscal Responsibility was a key backer of Capriglione’s campaign and of his transparency efforts, was much more pointed. In an email blast and several social media postings, Sullivan, whose group is a 501(c)(4) — the federal tax code category SB 346 is meant to apply to — called the bill an “Obama IRS-style attack” that would open up every donor to conservative groups to “vicious attack.”  

In this session's transparency fight, ethics watchdogs suggest there has been plenty of irony to go around.

The Legislature's veteran Republicans — tired of Tea Party groups and far-right activists like Sullivan working to defeat them via politically active nonprofits — backed a bill requiring such groups to report their donors. But they intentionally let a bill to subject lawmakers and their relatives to greater financial scrutiny, Capriglione's House Bill 524, die on the vine; it made it out of committee but never to the House floor. 

“We’re subjecting them to transparency,” state Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said during House debate on SB 346 early this week. “Yet some in this body don’t want transparency that directly affects them.”

Meanwhile, Sullivan and other conservative activists actively promoted lawmaker transparency measures like Capriglione's, but tried to defeat legislation requiring them to reveal their groups’ donors. 

“The people that holler the most for transparency,” Geren said during debate on SB 346, “are the ones fighting it now.”

Reached via email, Sullivan said there was no contradiction.

“Pretending like they are the same is intellectually dishonest at best," he said. 

He argued that Capriglione's lawmaker transparency bill, which would've required legislators to disclose government contracts with businesses in which they or their immediate family own at least a 50 percent stake, was “targeted at deterring corruption and the appearance of corruption.” Forcing certain politically engaged nonprofits to reveal their donors “is designed to thwart the right of citizens to engage in anonymous political speech,” Sullivan said. 

“Those legislators who want to hide their contracts and family sweetheart deals are no doubt eager to make this dishonest comparison,” he added. 

But Craig McDonald, executive director of the left-leaning money-in-politics group Texans for Public Justice, said it's a fair comparison. His group is also a 501(c)(4) and will have to provide details about its donors under the legislation. He said the back-and-forth on the ethics bills working their way through the Legislature just goes to show that "transparency is good unless it applies to you."  

The full House may yet get a chance to vote on Capriglione's government contracts measure; he has said he'll offer it as an amendment on Monday to an omnibus bill to renew the Texas Ethics Commission. The donor disclosure bill will likely get another vote that day too. Geren has said he'll offer it as an amendment to the Ethics Commission bill — without the exemption for labor unions — to give the measure a shot in the event Gov. Rick Perry vetoes SB 346.

There's a decent chance Perry could nix that bill. The labor union exemption, which even the bill's supporters suggest is problematic, could give the governor grounds for a veto. 

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Politics State government 83rd Legislative Session Texas Ethics Commission Texas Legislature