Abbott Gets Bill Limiting Ethics Disclosures

Gov. Greg Abbott wanted to "dedicate this session to ethics reform," and now must decide whether to sign a bill limiting the information he and other elected officials must disclose information about their spouses' property and finances.

Sen. Joan Huffman R-Houston

Elected officials and major Texas bureaucrats won’t have to disclose as much information about their spouse’s property and financial activity in the future under a bill headed for Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

The legislation essentially repeals an agency rule, drafted in the wake of ethics violations by a former House member, that spells out what must be included in personal financial statements filed by the governor, members of the Legislature and other high-ranking state officials.

The legislation passed Friday narrows the circumstances in which state officials would have to list holdings or other financial activity attributable to their spouse on those reports, which are filed annually with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen of Texas, said the change will allow lawmakers to “hide assets in their spouse's name that are designed to influence their behavior as a legislator.”

“We call on the governor to reject it,” Smith said. “If he wants real ethics reform, this isn’t it. This is real ethics abuse.”

The change came in an amendment, by Houston GOP Sen. Joan Huffman, tacked onto a bill by Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston. Davis said the bill, adopted unanimously with the amendment in it, achieved “targeted disclosure.”

Under the rule adopted last year by the Ethics Commission, officials required to file reports must provide the details of their ownership in any community property and the holdings of spouses if they exercise “any" legal or factual control over the activity. 

Under the bill headed to Abbott’s desk, the word “spouse” is deleted from that section of the law and instead it spells out the limited circumstances in which “community property” must be revealed.

If it becomes law, politicians and bureaucrats will have to reveal community property that is considered separate and under their exclusive control, or when they exert “both factual and legal” control over the property. 

The rule adopted last year by the Ethics Commission came in the wake of a scandal involving former Rep. Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, who failed to disclose vehicles, owned by a state transportation contractor, that she drove. Brown argued she didn’t have to list the cars on her personal financial statement because they were given to her husband as compensation for accounting work he did.

The Ethics Commission disagreed and fined her $2,000.

Natalia Ashley, executive director of the commission, said the rule clarifying when spousal property must be disclosed is “in line with the interpretation of that law in this sworn complaint action.”

Now Abbott will get the chance to repeal or keep that rule once HB 3511 hits his desk. An email seeking comment from the governor’s press office was not immediately answered. 

Paul Hobby, chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission, said the rule adopted by the agency was designed to “clarify the statute and get maximum disclosure,” but he said the commission can only deal with what the Legislature puts in the law books.

“They control the statutes and we administer them. We fill in the gaps,” he said. “They create their own rules, and that’s the way it’s always been.”