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Board Calls For Modern Texas Ethics Commission

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AUSTIN (AP) - The Texas Ethics Commission too often focuses on minor infractions and unduly stigmatizes politicians for unintentional mistakes, a legislative advisory board said in a report Tuesday.

The members of the Sunset Advisory Commission found that the current complaint system and rules are too often used to damage the reputation of a political opponent.

“Almost any error is a potential violation, and filers found to be in violation of disclosure laws in even minor ways may be stigmatized as ethics violators,” the commission’s report said. “This stigma can mislead the public as to a person’s character, be devastating to political careers, and provide incentives to misuse the agency’s complaint process for political purposes.”

The review also found that the commission’s technology was outdated and the filing system antiquated. The advisory board recommended allowing the ethics commission to charge a filing fee to candidates, elected officials and political committees to raise money to improve the system.

The Sunset Advisory Commission is made up of state representatives and senators and regularly reviews state agencies to recommend improvements.

The Texas Ethics Commission was set up to bring more transparency to politics by requiring politicians, lobbyists and top state officials to file personal financial disclosures and to report how campaign money is raised and spent. The commission keeps all of the information and makes it available to the public. Texas has no limits on political spending, and the reports are the only real method of monitoring donations to politicians.

Government watchdog groups complained that the reforms recommended by the advisory commission did not go far enough.

“Lobby disclosures and gift and travel reforms have reined in some unethical behavior,” said Laurie Vanhoose of Common Cause of Texas. “But the Ethics Commission has never been effective; its appointees are too close to the people they are supposed to watch. It’s no surprise that in 20 years, they have never taken any meaningful enforcement steps against their friends.”

While the Ethics Commission has the power to investigate violations of the disclosure rules independently, all of the cases so far have originated with public complaints that someone did not follow the filing rules. The investigation and final judgment of those complaints is supervised by the eight commissioners who oversee the agency, and in most cases the offender is required to refile their paperwork or pay a fine.

The sunset board suggested separating investigations from judgments.

“The agency’s full commission is involved in both developing proposed enforcement actions and sitting as final judge to take final action on sworn complaints. This process could bias commissioners as to the outcome of a complaint since they actually were involved in its investigation,” the board’s report said.

Lawmakers will consider the Sunset Advisory Commission’s recommendations when the Legislature meets again in January.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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