Thursday, September 28, 2006

Why Won't Ethics Commission Obey The Law ?

Back in August, Representative Lon Burnam asked the Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion on whether state officials must report the amount of cash gifts. In the past, the Commission has allowed officials to declare they received a gift without declaring the amount of the gift. One official received $100,000 in gifts and just put the word "check" on the declaration form without indicating the amount of the gift.

Even former Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff, a Republican who served on the conference committee for the statute in question, has told the Commission that the intent of the law was to require officials to declare the amount of all gifts. Rep. Burnam agrees saying, "I want to commend those Commissioners that stood up for common sense and meaningful disclosure. They understand that there is no reasonable way to describe a cash gift without indicating the AMOUNT of cash. Obviously, it was never the intent of the Legislature to allow public officials to receive cash gifts without specifying the amount."

But instead of making a common sense decision, the Ethics Commission has delayed their decision until at least December 1st. This is a clear violation of state law governing the Commission. Here is what the law says:

"571.092. DEADLINE FOR OPINION; EXTENSION. (a) The commission shall issue an advisory opinion not later than the 60th day after the date the commission receives the request. (b) The commission by vote may extend the time available to issue an opinion by 30 days. The commission may not grant more than two extensions."

I don't think you need to be a lawyer to understand the paragraph above. It is clear that the decision to wait until December 1st violates Texas law. According to the law, the Commission must meet in October, and even if they granted a second extension, it would be about the third week of November, and not December 1st. Rep. Burnam has written to the Commission reminding them of the law. I must agree with Burnam on this issue. It is not too much to expect the Commission to follow the law.

Representative Burnam has issued a press release, in which he states the following, "By refusing to issue a common sense opinion today, the Ethics Commission has left this glaring loophole open for an additional 30 days [the legal limit of an extension]. If they continue to abdicate their authority and insist on a legislative fix, the loophole will not be closed until September of 2007. This is needlessly dangerous. The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker should call on their appointees to issue an advisory opinion or make a rule to require meaningful disclosure of cash gifts. The Commission has the authority to fix this even though some commissioners continue to insist they are impotent. The Ethics Commission needs to quit stalling and do its job. In a year when Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay await trial, at a time when public confidence in government is at one of its lowest points in history, at a time when the public wants stricter enforcement of ethics laws, the Texas Ethics Commission continues to fail to do its job."

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