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Texas GOP Trying to Gut Ethics Inquiry, Critics Say

A bill introduced in the Legislature is called a blatant bid to protect Republicans, including Rep. Tom DeLay, from a fundraising probe.

February 11, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Late last year, Republican leaders in Washington caused a stir, even among some allies, when they tried to protect House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas by revoking an ethics rule that would force him to step down if indicted.

Now, Republican leaders in Texas are pushing a measure that watchdogs call a junior version of the Washington effort.

A bill filed this week by a veteran state GOP lawmaker would give the Texas Ethics Commission -- whose members were appointed by the three top elected officials in the state, all Republicans -- the power to quash the prosecution of a politician.

Critics call it a brazen attempt to protect GOP leaders who might become entangled in an ongoing criminal investigation into whether illegal fundraising paved the party's rise to power in the state.

Texans for Public Justice, an organization that tries to combat the influence of money in politics, labeled the measure the "Politician Protection Act." Director Craig McDonald said the bill created a "special criminal justice process for politicians."

State Rep. Mary Denny, who filed the bill, said in an interview Thursday that she was attempting to add oversight, not remove it. She said it never occurred to her that the legislation could be used to protect Republican leaders who might become targets of the fundraising investigation.

Denny, a ranch owner from Aubrey, near Dallas, is serving her seventh two-year term in the state House and is the chairwoman of the House Elections Committee.

She said the bill was intended to provide an additional layer of oversight when allegations of campaign law violations were levied at the local level -- in city council races, for instance. Prosecutors often don't have time to vigorously pursue these types of complaints, she said, allowing them to fall by the wayside.

"They have murderers and robbers and rapists. Even the hot-check writers are going to come up higher on a priority list," she said. "And yet to that candidate, it is very important.... All I'm trying to do is give all candidates the opportunity to have their complaints looked at."

The bill would create an investigative arm of the Ethics Commission, which would be authorized to conduct investigations into alleged criminal conduct under the state Election Code.

But the bill doesn't stop there.

It also says that a district attorney, including the one in Austin who is overseeing the fundraising investigation, would be prohibited from continuing such an inquiry if the Ethics Commission did not agree that charges were warranted. Denny said she believed district attorneys would welcome input from people who specialized in election law.

"Why would they want to pursue something when there is no wrongdoing?" she asked.

Sarah Woelk, general counsel of the Ethics Commission, said she was prohibited by law from taking a position on any proposed legislation. But she said the commission did not request the legislation.

"I had not heard anything about it," she said.

Republicans, long the minority in Texas, swept to power in 2002 and now control every statewide office, both houses of the Legislature and the governor's mansion. The following year, at DeLay's request, the Legislature drew new maps of Texas congressional districts. The maps gave the GOP a six-seat swing in the state congressional delegation last year, helping cement the party's control of Congress.

Travis County Dist. Atty. Ronnie Earle and a series of grand juries have spent two years investigating whether political and business organizations with ties to DeLay illegally financed the campaigns of 22 Republican House candidates in 2002. State law bans corporate contributions to legislative candidates.

Three of DeLay's aides have been indicted and charged with money laundering and unlawfully accepting and soliciting corporate contributions. Republicans have widely criticized the investigation, calling it a witch hunt and pointing out that Earle is a Democrat.

In November, in an act of loyalty to a man known as "the Hammer," Republicans in Congress threw out an internal party rule that would have forced DeLay to resign his leadership post if he were indicted. Under pressure, the GOP later reversed course, changing another rule instead that made it easier to block congressional ethics investigations.

"This seems to be part of the pattern," McDonald said.

Among the politicians who appoint people to the Texas Ethics Commission are state House Speaker Tom Craddick, who appoints two of the eight members, Woelk said. Craddick, a Republican from Midland, is at least a peripheral target of the fundraising investigation. His appointees could, in theory, play a role in determining whether legal action against him could proceed.

"This is a slap in the face to the public," Earle said Thursday.

Craddick's office said he had not read the legislation and would not comment.

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