Texas Senator Calls State Ethics Commission "Arrogant" and "Haughty"

“If you are untouchable, we’ve got a problem,” Sen. Brian Birdwell told the chairman of the commission, which is charged with making sure public officials and campaigns obey state ethics and elections laws.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, listens to testimony at a Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing reviewing current ethics laws governing public officials and employees on Oct, 5, 2016.

A Texas senator on Wednesday called Texas Ethics Commission members “arrogant” and “haughty,” and asked: “Who ensures that the ethics commission is acting ethically?”

“If you are untouchable, we’ve got a problem,” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, told commission chairman Chase Untermeyer at a sometimes-testy hearing of the Senate Committee on State Affairs that was supposed to frame discussions on ethics proposals for the upcoming legislative session.

“The only guidepost we have is the law,” Untermeyer replied.

Birdwell — who likened the commission to airport security (“absolutely necessary,” but making life “pretty darn unpleasant”) — wasn’t the only member of the mostly Republican committee to air grievances about the eight-member commission, which is charged with making sure public officials and campaigns obey state ethics and elections laws. The governor appoints four of the commission's members, while the House speaker and lieutenant governor each appoint two. No more than four members can be from one political party. 

Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who chairs the committee, joined Birdwell in questioning the commission’s priorities, at times suggesting that the commission should focus less on penalizing state officials for paperwork errors, and more on improving compliance.

She also asked whether the ethics commissioners believe they “should be treated differently” from other state officials.

Untermeyer responded that the commissioners do not believe that and must abide by the same rules as other state officials.

The hearing came amid a battle between the commission and conservative groups, particularly those that are set up under a part of the tax code that does not require them to disclose their donors. And it followed a dustup between Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Ethics Commissioner Hugh Akin, who last month rejected Patrick's request that he resign. Patrick has sought to overhaul the commission with new appointees. 

Birdwell on Wednesday said Akin’s refusal in a letter to resign before his term expires in November 2017 “spoke to me of a haughty attitude” among the commissioners and an “untouchability, that I think is the concern of the members up here.”

In June, commission critics sent a letter to state leaders pressing them to deal with "holdovers,” members who are serving despite the fact their terms have expired.

Two such holdovers, Tom Harrison and Paul Hobby, have since resigned. Harrison is now the subject of a criminal complaint by the conservative group Empower Texans, which alleges he illegally gave gifts to lawmakers while working for one of the state's largest pension funds and serving on the commission. Harrison has denied any wrongdoing.

Last week, House Speaker Joe Straus appointed former state Rep. Steve Wolens to the seat Hobby left. 

Patrick’s office has also said it’s looking for a replacement for former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, a third holdover whose term expired last year.

In refusing to resign, Akin, who was appointed by former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, wrote: "I find the work of the Commission to be important, challenging and rewarding. Equally important, it enables me to meet my personal and professional commitment to our Founding Principles of informed civic participation and self-government."

The same groups pushing for an overhaul at the commission have supported Patrick and lawmakers including Birdwell and Huffman over years.

The legislative session will kick off in January, following a 2015 period in which lawmakers failed to pass sweeping ethics reform — an issue Gov. Greg Abbott had named a priority.

Steve Bresnen, an attorney long involved in state ethics issues, called on lawmakers at the hearing to pass legislation that would give the public more information about political donations from “dark money” groups and to give the ethics commission more resources to hold potential rules-breakers accountable — for instance, by bolstering its discovery tools while it’s hearing disputes.   

“Y’all are going to have to decide whether you want these laws enforced or not,” he told the committee. “There’s enough liars in politics that we ought to know who’s telling the lies.”

Read more on this topic: 

  • A member of the Texas Ethics Commission has rejected what he says was an effort by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to get him to resign.
  • The governor and lawmakers promise to reignite their efforts to tighten ethics laws in Texas, but they have so far been missing a key incentive to make reluctant officeholders go along: public interest.
  • When the gavel came down on the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers failed to pass into law about two dozen different proposals aimed at curbing conflicts of interest and shining light into the dark corners of the Capitol.