Among Friends

Buster Brown's financial disclosure includes an interesting omission -- and addition

Brown's relationship with HL&P was first revealed when he ran for state attorney general against Dan Morales in 1990. Forms filed with the Public Utilities Commission showed Brown had received a $12,000 retainer from HL&P. The question was raised then as to whether Brown should be voting on laws that might affect the financial interests of the utility, an almost certain occurrence when the Legislature meets.

In 1991, the Legislature created the Texas Ethics Commission to bring potential conflicts of interest to light. The new financial forms included a section on retainers, but Brown never reported his retainers with HL&P until he submitted his 1995 report this July. Brown says he reported the payment because he had severed his relationship with his law firm, Brown, Girouard & Richardson, in February 1995, and is now in business for himself. According to Brown, he didn't have to report the retainer earlier "because it came to the firm."

But the disclosure form is explicit. It requires the filers to "identify any person or other organization from which you or a business in which you have a substantial interest [italics added] have received a fee as a retainer for future services." A "substantial interest" is defined as owning more than 10 percent of a firm, and in earlier filings, Brown had reported a 20 percent ownership in his old law firm.

There was never any confusion at HL&P about whether it wanted Brown or his law firm. "In this case we wanted the senator," says Painter, "because he was a person of stature. It was done through the firm, and when he left the firm we had to make a decision, and we decided to stay with the senator."

Small wonder about that. When HL&P first retained Brown, he was sponsoring the confirmation of two of the three members of the Public Utility Commission. When the Legislature meets next January, it will consider major legislation to deregulate the electric utilities, legislation that could cost HL&P billions of dollars.

To Brown, representing HL&P and voting on deregulation that affects the utility is no big deal.

"I would look at it like any client that I represent, " he says. "We have 5,000 bills that come before the Senate. I don't prejudge them until the time comes ... over 16 years, I have faced a lot of bills. I don't think this is any bigger than anything else."

If Brown's past voting record is any indication, don't expect him to bow out of the debate over utility deregulation. The journal of the Senate indicates that Brown did not abstain from voting on two major utility regulation bills in 1993 and 1995. Brown says he can't recall ever abstaining on utility votes, but, he says, "I don't remember there being any conflict, either."

"Buster Brown is a poster child for why we need reform," says Tom "Smitty" Smith, of the watchdog group Public Citizen. "There are significant loopholes in existing law that prohibit us from knowing who a legislator represents. The law needs to be tougher and require disclosure under seal to the House and the Senate of all clients of lawyers, and the clerk needs to be empowered to advise members that they cannot vote on certain items."

That would require a new level of muscle for the Ethics Commission, which has no independent investigatory powers. For the commission to clear up the inconsistencies in Brown's filings or those of his client, Ravi Singhania, a citizen would have to file a sworn complaint before the commission. The commission would then hold a private, informal hearing, and if more attention is required, a second closed hearing would be held. A full, formal public hearing is the third and final stage, but in its four years of existence, the commission has always settled ethics disputes privately.

Does that mean Texas politics is incredibly clean or the Ethics Commission is toothless? It all depends on your point of view.

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