Parties can use ethics agency to aid candidates
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.