Ethics Commissioners: Lawmakers Went Backward in 2015

That legislative session Gov. Greg Abbott sought to devote to ethics? Texas ethics regulators are far from impressed.

Sen. Kirk Watson D-Austin and Sen. Joan Huffman R-Houston, discuss language to amendment for SB #11 relating to campus carry on March 18th, 2015

Editor's note: This story has been updated to add details on an ethics complaint filed against Sen. Joan Huffman. 

That legislative session Gov. Greg Abbott sought to devote to ethics? Texas ethics regulators are far from impressed.

“If there was any ethics reform, it was in reverse,” Paul Hobby, chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission, said Thursday at a public meeting that came less than 10 days after lawmakers adjourned their 84th session with the following accomplishments:

  • Creating a new loophole to protect lawmaker spouses from certain financial disclosure
  • Giving themselves and state bureaucrats hometown prosecution when they're accused of white-collar crimes in Austin
  • Failing to agree on and pass sweeping ethics reform

“There are some bills on the governor’s desk that just scare me to death,” Commissioner Jim Clancy, the body’s former chairman, said at the meeting.

The bipartisan commissioners largely focused on Thursday on measures awaiting Abbott’s signature that would open up a “spousal loophole” allowing politicians to shield information about their spouses’ financial holdings.

The proposals would essentially repeal an agency rule, drafted last year 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 – including certain information about their spouses’ property and financial activity.

“There needs to be the designation of potential conflicts of interest," Clancy said in an interview. "It doesn’t make a difference as far as the public is concerned whether a business takes the spouse of a government official to the Super Bowl and lets the government official come along, or whether they take the government official to the Super Bowl."

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, pushed the changes as amendments to two different bills: House Bill 3736, an effort to otherwise increase transparency and curb conflicts of interest on state boards and commissions, and House Bill 3511, which Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, has said achieves "targeted disclosure." 

Clancy and three others on the eight-member commission – Vice Chairman Chase Untermeyer and Commissioners Hugh Akin and Bob Long – recently sent Abbott a letter urging him to veto the two bills. They wrote the letter in their personal capacity, Clancy said, not as commissioners.

Untermeyer told The Texas Tribune that his colleagues supported Davis' original legislation until Huffman "fatally infected" it with her amendment. The commissioners requested the vetoes "with great pain," he said.

Abbott, who in February called for lawmakers to “dedicate this session to ethics reform,” has not said whether he plans to sign or veto the legislation. 

Huffman, who could not immediately be reached for comment, has said the change was needed to clarify an "unclear" Ethics Commission rule. Clancy said the rule was plenty clear.

“We had situations where some members were reporting their spouses and some were not, and we wanted to clarify it," he said.

Huffman is now facing a complaint that she violated the same provision she sought to repeal.

On Wednesday, a Katy resident filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission alleging that the senator filed “false” information by failing to list more than 35 businesses in which her husband has a stake.

Huffman’s husband, nightclub owner and manager Keith Lawyer, is tied to dozens of businesses with current or past filings with the Texas Secretary of State's office. Huffman does not mention his interests on her disclosure form. Lawyer briefly became an issue in the Houston Republican’s 2008 Senate race, amid reports that Huffman received heavy support from interests tied to liquor, gambling and nightclubs.

"Only five of those businesses were created prior to Huffman and Lawyer’s marriage," Carol Wheeler, a retired network administrator, stated in the complaint

Late last month, Huffman told the Tribune that she fully complied with state disclosure laws. And she lists interests in one business entity, a ranch partnership she owns with her husband, on her 2014 report.

Despite the anti-ethics inertia, a few smaller ethics reforms did reach the governor’s desk. That includes a bill by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, ending the double-dipping loophole that allowed longtime politicians like former Gov. Rick Perry to draw a salary and pension at the same time. Turner also helped add an amendment to a separate bill requiring state officials to reveal pensions and "public benefits" on their annual disclosures. Abbott has said he favors the ideas.

Lawmakers also moved to require more sunlight on elected officials who profit from government contracts or certain public debt-financing deals. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, successfully pushed a bill requiring governmental entities to provide to the Texas Ethics Commission a list of people who have a controlling interest in their significant contracts.

Clancy told the Tribune that Capriglione deserves a "substantial amount of credit" for passing that legislation, though even it, too, was watered down from its original version. 

Terri Langford and Jay Root contributed to this report.