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Ethics, Judicial Conduct Agencies Get Lawmakers' Scrutiny
State lawmakers on Tuesday blasted the secrecy of a state agency that polices misconduct by Texas judges and seemed receptive to a proposal for more public disclosure and enforcement of ethics laws that govern legislators and other public officials.
          
Ethics, judicial conduct agencies get lawmakers' scrutiny
By Mike Ward, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF, Published: 9:38 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, 2012
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State lawmakers on Tuesday blasted the secrecy of a state agency that polices misconduct by Texas judges and seemed receptive to a proposal for more public disclosure and enforcement of ethics laws that govern legislators and other public officials.

The Sunset Advisory Commission did not formally vote on the recommended changes for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct or the Texas Ethics Commission. But panelists made it clear during a daylong public hearing at the Capitol that they are leaning toward reforms.

The 12-member commission, made up of five senators, five House members and two public members, periodically measures the performance of state agencies to determine whether they should continue operating or be merged or closed.

Texas Ethics Commission staff recommended strengthening the agency's enforcement abilities, reducing penalties for minor paperwork mistakes and making more disclosure documents available to the public online.

Sunset commission chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, at several points seemed to support many of the proposed changes, which were endorsed by a parade of government-watchdog advocates and citizens.

If the panel eventually supports the staff recommendations, the ethics commission could end up with its first-ever enforcement division and greater power to subpoena records to investigate complaints.

"We feel it's in the public's interest to have an open situation where there's daylight all through the transactions we have," said Tom Ramsay, a retired lawmaker from East Texas who chairs the ethics commission.

Even so, changing ethics laws at the Capitol has been difficult in the past. The commission was created two decades ago after a legislative influence-peddling scandal. No matter how much support reforms might seem to have at a meeting, approval can be derailed after lawmakers ponder whether they really want to give an agency more power to bust them for violations.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, questioned whether the changes might be misperceived by the public.

"Some of us are concerned that the watchdog groups are ... going to holler that we're watering down the ethics rules," he said.

"It's time for an adjustment," answered Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a longtime watchdog group. "We've got your back."

The commission is expected to vote this summer on the proposals.

While the ethics changes drew support Tuesday, the judicial conduct commission drew angry rebukes from lawmakers who were upset about the agency's secrecy.

Lawmakers expressed concern that the judicial commission asserted attorney-client privilege to keep secret some of its investigation records.

"I've never heard of that," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, citing an attorney general's opinion from 2000 that said the records should have been provided to the Sunset commission staff. "If we had other agencies asserting that, we'd have to shut down everything up here."

Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, suggested that the judicial agency meet again with the Sunset staff before its June meeting and work out a way to provide access to the necessary records.

Tom Cunningham, chairman of the judicial conduct commission, said provisions in state law and the Texas Constitution make their records confidential — provisions the agency cannot waive.

Additional witnesses complained that the judicial commission had not fully investigated or prosecuted cases of judicial misconduct, claims that could not be verified because of the agency's secrecy.

"We citizens of Texas have the right to know who the bad judges are," said J. Gary Trichter, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association,.

Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791

 
© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation