After two years of pondering, the Texas Ethics Commission has handed down the second largest fine in its history. The target is the state Republican Campaign Committee, which had been accused of funneling campaign money from Texas judges to a political action committee run by Houston's conservative kingmaker Dr. Steven Hotze.
The action provoked no celebration from Sharon Rankin, the moderate Republican activist from Houston who filed the original complaint. Rankin calls the relatively paltry fine a hand-slap that demonstrates that the state agency enforcing campaign finance laws is a watchdog without a bite.
"It's time to allow the Texas Ethics Commission to have more rules and regulations and the power to do some things," declares Rankin. "We have some really good people there -- they just can't do anything."
"People are not afraid of the ethics commission," continues Rankin, "and the commission needs to have some teeth put into it so that politicians, including judges, have a little bit of hesitancy about just blatantly going out and breaking all the rules and not being worried about it."
The latest fine involves four contributions totaling $120,000 made by the Texas Republican Campaign Committee, the PAC for the state party. The money went to Hotze's Conservative Republicans of Harris County PAC during a two-month period in 1998.
Various judges had contributed to the Texas Republicans' committee, which then made identical contributions to Hotze's PAC. Rankin and other moderate Republicans charged that the state party in effect was laundering the money to circumvent limits on contributions by judges to PACs.
"When they passed this law that said that judges could not give to individual PACs any more than $500," explains Rankin, "then that left Hotze where he couldn't put out anything. So the money goes to the Republican Party, which for the first time ever gave to an individual PAC an enormous amount of money."
Last year the agency levied its largest fine ever -- $5,000 -- against Hotze's Conservative Republicans of Harris County for a range of 1996 campaign violations. Rankin claims all the violations relate to religious conservatives' efforts to stamp their beliefs on the state judiciary.
"Every judge that gets Hotze's and the Republican Party's backing has to have read the party platform, and has to have agreed that they support the platform. And there are a lot of things in that platform that are disgusting and have nothing to do with governing the country." Among those issues, says Rankin, are opposition to abortion, condemnation of gay lifestyles, and insistence on public school prayer.
During the last legislative session, Senator Jon Lindsay introduced a bill to relax confidentiality rules and allow the commission to aggressively investigate campaign violations. Rankin and other reform advocates testified before a committee hearing, but the bill went nowhere.
"They sat up there and basically said, 'Do you really think that we as senators want the ethics commission to have more teeth, 'cause then we'd have to worry about it,' " Rankin recalls with a laugh. "Their attitude was it is the way it is because we set it up that way and we're very happy that it continues that way."
Houstonian Mickey Lawrence is one of eight ethics commission members. Before then-governor George W. Bush appointed her last year, Lawrence was one of the complainants in the case that drew the record fine against Hotze's PAC. She has also felt firsthand the sting of Hotze's campaign machine, which targeted her as a liberal in the GOP primary battle for Harris County attorney in 1996.
The new commission quickly realized why the agency wasn't aggressively processing complaints, she says.
"I would ask the staff questions," Lawrence says of her first meetings. "Did you talk to this person or that person? And the answer was always no. It came out in the hearing that we can't investigate because of the confidentiality provisions."
Unlike confidentiality restrictions for the Judicial Conduct Commission, Lawrence says, the ethics commission staff can be subject to a $10,000 fine and Class A misdemeanors. Naturally, the investigators are reluctant to expose themselves to the possibility of such penalties.
"They won't do it," explains Lawrence, "because whoever they call will say, 'Why are you calling me?' And we're going to have to tell that person we're calling because of a complaint. And just by doing that, we have violated the confidentiality provision."
Commission attorney Karen Lundquist agrees that the penalties dampen the agency's investigatory process. She says that at the preliminary review stage, where most of the complaints are resolved, it is hard to contact people. "If they want to know why do we want to know, we can't say we're in the process of investigating a sworn complaint."
The attorney says that when the commission was created in 1991 to assume the oversight duties of the secretary of state, the issue was hotly debated. The legislature imposed the tough confidentiality rules out of fear that the commission might become a partisan tool to punish rival politicians.
Lundquist believes that removal of the penalties would allow the staff to interview witnesses and get to the bottom of complaints at an early stage. "Removing the penalties would help. But what would really be good is an affirmative statement that we can talk to witnesses."
Still, Lawrence believes the commission has a well of untapped enforcement power, if only it would act. There are criminal and civil penalties available, as well as the ability to refer violations to district attorneys and counties for prosecution. "We just have never done it," Lawrence says.
Likewise, the commission has the power to audit campaigns and PACs but has never ordered an audit. Lawrence notes that the commission could use investigative journalists' work as the basis to file complaints, just like the Judicial Conduct Commission.
"Let's say you publish something in your newspaper that looks like it's pretty gross and looks like a violation of election code," Lawrence hypothesizes. "With the Judicial Conduct Commission, someone can send that article in and they can take it up on their own motion. The ethics commission could do the same thing, and on our own motion file a complaint. But we've never done it."
When Lawrence suggested some of those procedures to fellow commissioners, she says, the answers were blunt. "They said, 'We can't do that because the legislature will get mad at us if we do that. Our hands are tied.' "
"It's the way they are interpreting these statutes," says Lawrence. "I think we've got a lot of enforcement power. We're just not using it."
Political consultant Allen Blakemore handles the affairs of the Conservative Republicans of Harris County on behalf of his client, Hotze. He scoffs at the fines against the PAC as penalties for technical errors rather than substantive violations. He accuses Lawrence of continuing her campaign against Hotze under the guise of ethics commission impartiality.
"Mickey and her crowd have filed so many complaints against Hotze I don't even bother to keep up with them," says Blakemore. "We put a lot of effort into trying our best to comply with the law It is a very complex set of rules, and then they change them every year just to make it interesting."
Blakemore calls Lawrence "a menace" who has "no business being on the ethics commission." He adds, "Half of the complaints in the building have been filed by her."
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The commission has not heard any complaints against Hotze since Lawrence joined it. And "if they try to," Blakemore warns, "they'll wish they hadn't."
The one bright spot, says Blakemore, is that since Lawrence was appointed to the commission, "They've stopped filing complaints against us and they stopped pursuing them, because they knew she was behind them."
Lawrence shows no signs of backing off from her efforts to free the commission from its self-imposed constraints. She notes that the Texas Sunset Commission will consider changes in ethics commission regulations early next year. She's urging reform-minded Texans to send their suggestions via e-mail to the Sunset Commission Web page at www.sunset.state.tx.us.
Don't be surprised if one of those suggestions from the Conservative Republicans of Harris County would have the sun setting on the term of one Mickey Lawrence.