Par­ties can use ethics agency to aid can­di­dates

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO&STATE - JA­SON EMRY

In pol­i­tics, like Scrab­ble, those who put the right words in the right places get bonus points. These words — in­ves­ti­ga­tion, dis­close, prof­i­teer — are best di­rected to­ward the op­po­si­tion. “I am call­ing for a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion of my op­po­nent be­cause he did not dis­close how he prof­i­teered from his prior ser­vice.”

The words of­ten arise when talk­ing about com­plaints filed with the Texas Ethics Com­mis­sion, a re­view panel ap­pointed by the gover­nor, lieu­tenant gover­nor and House speaker.

Here’s what hap­pens: A cam­paign thinks it has the goods on its op­po­nent, so an ally files an ethics com­plaint. Then the cam­paign pub­li­cizes said com­plaint, and it fil­ters out through the news me­dia. The com­mis­sion may or may not act on it be­fore the elec­tion.

Just look at what hap­pened in March. Cathie Adams, then the chair of the Texas Repub­li­can Party, filed a com­plaint against Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial nom­i­nee Bill White, say­ing he had left some of his in­come off of the dis­clo­sure forms that

can­di­dates must file with the state.

The White cam­paign pushed back, in­sist­ing that it fol­lowed the law. But just by fil­ing the com­plaint, Repub­li­cans picked up yardage. Perry’s team pro­duced a video show­ing 11 Texas tele­vi­sion an­chors read­ing that a com­plaint had been filed against White for a “fail­ure to re­port” in­come. It all sounded so omi­nous, even though the bar that one must clear to file a com­plaint is quite low. The com­plaint is still pend­ing. The Democrats were at it this week, fil­ing their own com­plaint that Perry failed to prop­erly re­port in­come on his per­sonal dis­clo­sure forms.

We should be glad that our state has an Ethics Com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate wrong­do­ing by can­di­dates and elected of­fi­cials. But the com­mis­sion can work only with the re­sources that law­mak­ers give it, and this state could use a beefed-up ethics agency that could in­ves­ti­gate com­plaints more promptly. Oth­er­wise, al­le­ga­tions sit out there for months or years, mak­ing the news that some­one filed a com­plaint more im­por­tant than the mer­its of the case. The news me­dia should try to get to the bot­tom of these mat­ters, but swift rul­ings from the com­mis­sion would go even fur­ther in show­ing which charges are le­git­i­mate.

One re­cent tar­get of an ethics com­plaint de­cided to play hard­ball.

Last month, a new po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee called the Back to Ba­sics PAC be­gan air­ing tele­vi­sion spots not­ing more than $10,000 per month in tax­payer ex­penses at Perry’s rental home in western Travis County. Rose­mary Ed­wards, head of the Travis County Repub­li­can Party, quickly com­plained to the Ethics Com­mis­sion that Back to Ba­sics had not waited the re­quired 60 days be­tween the fil­ing of its ini­tial pa­per­work with the state and its first ex­pen­di­ture.

Back to Ba­sics Di­rec­tor Cliff Walker re­sponded that the wait­ing pe­riod did not ap­ply to his group be­cause it ac­cepted money from a fed­eral PAC. And he told Ed­wards that if she did not with­draw her protest, his group would buy more time to keep the anti-Perry ad on the air. He also threat­ened to pur­sue sanc­tions against her for fil­ing a friv­o­lous com­plaint.

“I have no com­ment on a pend­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Ed­wards told me.

Re­gard­less of whether her com­plaint has merit, Ed­wards gets this game. She used the word “in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” Bonus points.

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