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The Ethics Of Pettiness

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Roscoe Dean Jr.A Georgia state senator named Roscoe Emory Dean Jr. and a small town city manager named Thomas Bigley taught me the real dangers to democracy of dark money and of leaving prosecutions of corrupt officials up to their local district attorneys. Roscoe and Tom tried to raise $10 million from Colombian drug lords to finance Dean’s campaign for governor.

My experiences from covering Dean’s corruption has made me disappointed in the various “ethics reforms” bouncing around the Texas Legislature this year. The reforms often are petty and political, while others are designed to turn legislators and state officials into a special class of people not subject to the same laws as everyone else in the state. And as much as I dislike so-called dark money, don’t expect an ethics bill that includes its disclosure to get past Governor Greg Abbott. As a Texas Supreme Court justice in 1998, Abbott wrote the opinion protecting donors to political groups from being subject to disclosure.


Since we are all products of our experiences, let’s start with political corruption on the Georgia coast, something I covered for The Florida Times-Union. The time was the late 1970s and the drug cartels were corrupting small-town governments up and down the Florida and Georgia coasts. With more talent than sense, I spent a lot of time doing investigative reporting on politicians in a small town called St. Marys and a McIntosh County sheriff named Thomas Poppell.

The high sheriff once engaged in a machine gun battle with U.S. Customs officers and the Drug Enforcement Administration as they attempted to bust a shrimp boat full of marijuana. Amazingly, no one was injured. Poppell claimed he was going to bust the shrimp boat but the feds invaded his county without notifying him, leading to a mistaken middle-of-the night shootout. The feds had a different idea of what was going on but couldn’t prove it. One of the last times I covered Poppell before he died was the federal trial of one of his deputies who was busted helping unload a boatload of marijuana. The trial was in federal court because no McIntosh County official was going to cross the sheriff – those who did tended to disappear on fishing trips.

In St. Marys, I spent time connecting the dots between drug dealers in South Florida and efforts by city officials to lease the municipal airport to a flight operator with ties to the cartels. Bigley, who was a heck of a nice guy, was the city manager. And the locals received a certain level of protection from Dean, a swaggering portrait of an old-style Southern politician who would have been best portrayed by Charles Durning. Tipped that Dean was trying to raise money from the cartels for a run for governor, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ran a sting, with an FDLE officer acting as a Colombian dealer with limited English. When the case eventually came to trial, Dean could be heard on a secret tape speaking loudly and slowly telling the FDLE agent that he would allow him to smuggle “funny cigars” if he would give Dean money to run for “el gubernator de Georgia.”

I returned home to Texas convinced that unfettered money – whether from drug lords or legitimate parties, Democrat or Republican – is a corrupting influence and a potential cancer on democracy. A lot of my career was dedicated to linking government acts or perks to campaign contributions. (If money changes hands before an official act, it’s a bribe. If the donation comes afterward, then it is a gratuity.) Until this year, I had rarely seen an ethics bill that I did not believe would improve our government. What is passing as ethics reform this year comes far closer to the petty and personal than it does to creating good government.

Let’s start with the waste of time debating dark money in Texas politics. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Abbott will veto any legislation that includes disclosure of dark money donors as then-Governor Rick Perry did in 2013. For one, Abbott on the campaign trail last year said he opposed such legislation. More than that, Abbott wrote the 1998 opinion to keep donor names secret when there was an effort made to find the funding of the Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse in Corpus Christi. The Texas Nonprofit Corporation Act required full disclosure of all a nonprofit’s finances, a holdover from the days when nonprofits were charities, not secretive political operations. Abbott’s words:

“Compelled disclosure of the identities of an organization’s members or contributors may have a chilling effect on the organization’s contributors as well as on the organization’s own activity.”

The First Amendment right of association is rooted in NAACP v. Alabama, a 1958 Supreme Court ruling that the state could not obtain the group’s membership list, a noble ruling designed to halt intimidation. In more recent years, political groups have bastardized that opinion to create a system of corrupting dark money that hides donors from the public light of day.

In a recent op-ed in The Austin American-Statesman, Public Citizen counsel Carol Birch wrote that dark money in Texas politics rose to $2 million in 2014

To illuminate dark money, the bill should require identification of all sources of funds used for election campaigns. This principle should apply to direct expenditures by for-profit and nonprofit organizations designed to influence elections.

Representative Byron Cook added dark money language to SB 19 on Friday, but face facts, it is DOA. Also, the House’s motivation to regulate dark money has been fear of Michael Quinn Sullivan and his Empower Texans to pour money into legislative races without exposing his donors. Texas has no restrictions on how much an individual can give to a political campaign so until recent years there has been no major effort to conceal donor identities. And I suspect that if Empower Texans donors were known, it would not dissuade them from giving money. Dark money just makes them a special class of contributors who can avoid the daylight of transparency.

Unlimited political donating by individuals and corporations strikes me as the antithesis of the concept of one-man, one-vote, with money giving the wealthy and powerful a greater say in influencing the political system than the poor and powerless. It is a step toward Dallas oilman H.L. Hunt’s dream of a Utopia in which the wealthy gained additional votes according to the greater share of taxes they pay. But with Abbott’s position and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United, there is little reason to believe any attempt to force disclosure of dark money in Texas would survive. Regulation of dark money is going to have to start at the federal level and answer the question of whether spending money actually is equal to free speech. Including dark money in a Texas ethics bill just seems to predestine true ethics reform in other areas to failure. 

The second part of Cook’s version of the ethics bill is exactly the kind of backlash I feared from the American Phoenix Foundation hidden camera investigation of legislators.

Jay Root of the Texas Tribune reported that a new draft of the state ethics bill includes a limitation on recording legislators in the Capitol. 

Senate Bill 19 also takes aim at the people who secretly record or film at the state Capitol. Specifically, it would require people who record conversations with lawmakers inside the Capitol to gain the consent of all parties to the conversation or face a civil lawsuit.

This obviously is aimed at the APF workers who are confronting lawmakers with loaded questions while recording them with hidden cameras. Lawmakers feel like the activists are bording on harrassment. However, the expectation is that if the APF has embarrassing video footage, it is from bars, restaurants and fundraisers.

Let me tell you why this is bad language that could become bad law and would establish legislators as a privileged class of people.

            1. When Joe Pickett threw Jonathan Stickland out of the transportation committee over witness sign-ins on a bill to ban red light cameras, the House initially locked down the official video. The only available audio or video of the event was shot by a Stickland supporter from Arlington. This language could make that citizen liable in a lawsuit for recording lawmakers in a public hearing in a government owned building. 

          2. Similarly, a citizen who confronts a lawmaker in the Capitol over a public policy dispute would not be able to record the lawmaker to get the lawmaker’s position on the record.

           3. The news media could end up only being able to record and reproduce words that the lawmakers agreed to have broadcast. Essentially, it would allow the media to be only shills for legislators and never critics. If I wanted to record a lawmaker in a surprise hallway interview about a $10,000 campaign donation he or she had taken from a lobbyist whose bill they were carrying, I’d have to first say, “May I record you.” I recently witnessed Senator Brian Birdwell shut down a reporter by saying, “I don’t do drive-bys,” when the journalist tried to catch him on the fly for a question.

Much the same can be said about the legislation to move the Public Integrity Unit out of Travis County. I understand why Republican lawmakers might not want to go before grand juries and petit juries in Travis County to face partisan Democrats. But by moving public corruption cases of legislators and state officials to their home counties creates a situation where politicians like Roscoe Dean and Tom Poppell are less likely to be prosecuted. We need look no farther than the fact the district attorney friend and former business partner of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had to be shamed by The Dallas Morning News and a Collin County grand jury into relinquishing an ethics investigation of Paxton to a special prosecutor. 

This is long enough already, so I’m not going to go into all the petty personal politics and paybacks that were included in SB 19 as it passed through the Senate. Greater personal financial disclosure already has run into walls in the House and Senate. Probably the only ethics reform that has even a remote chance of passing would be greater disclosure of lobbyists wining and dining legislators.

Unfortunately, this may be a year when the best ethics reform is no ethics reform at all.

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  • Indiana Pearl

    Corrupt. And only $2 million for 2014? I would have thought it would be much more.

  • Blue Dogs

    Texas edging closer to becoming the Philippines 2.0!

  • Beerman

    It is obvious that getting elected to the State Legislature, as well as other State elective Offices, is increasingly seen as a place where people go to get rich by selling our State down the drain and placing their own interests and agendas far above any consideration for what is best for Texas and good for Texans. These charlatans just view their time at State government as a stepping stone that ultimately leads to incredibly lucrative, private sector lobbying, consulting, or other executive positions with Corporate donors that they have helped to get their fingers in the State piggy-bank, during their tenures in office. The moral values of the majority of our politicians have been and are corrupted.

    • WUSRPH

      I weep for the liberty of my country when I see at this early day of its successful experiment that corruption has been imputed to many members of the House of Representatives, and the rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office.

      Andrew Jackson

      As you can see, people have always seen it as you do…However, it is only partially correct. The opportunity for corrupt or financially rewarding opportunities may be the reason a FEW seek public office, but for great majority is usually a combination of ego (the desire for recognition and/or power) and a real desire to help shape the future of their city, state or nation for the better.* I suspect you and the JJs of this world will never accept that…but it is more true than your suggestion that the majority are corrupt.

      *Even the most ardent Tea Partier believes what they are doing is for the good of their country. They may well be wrong. but it is to advance their beliefs and not greed that they and most others serve.

      P.S. The stuff in the bill about not allowing recording of questioning of members in the Capitol bldg. is c… It should come out and I, suspect would come out in a conference…

      • Beerman

        I agree about ego being one of the reasons for seeking office; however, I firmly believe that enrichment is the main motivator for the majority of today’s political operators. The Tea Party and evangelical movement die-hards are being used by many of these charlatans to help them be elected to fulfill their greed. The game has changed dramatically over the past 12 years or so, and there are many more greedy “FEWS” than good old folks serving in State government now, than there was in the old days. The same is true in our U.S. Congress, sad but true.

        • WUSRPH

          As I said…some have always believed that….but I do not…I knew and know too many of them who SACRIFICE financially and personally to SERVE….There have always been a few bad ones…as there is any group of human beings…but your cynicism is extreme.

  • r.g. ratcliffe

    Incidentally, I should add, that what Dean promised the pretend drug dealer was that if he was elected he would pull the state police out of the coastal counties.

  • José

    Charles Durning did play a Southern politician at least once. In The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (based on a TM article, I recall) Durning portrayed a governor of Texas who bore a striking resemblance to the oft absent Dolph Briscoe.

    • WUSRPH

      The Dancing Man

      Late, late one dark night (around 3 am) in early 1980s I was working on a special project in the first floor office of the State Senator who I worked for then when I heard a strange noise coming from outside in the hall¨. I peaked out the door and there zigzagging back and forth across the wide corridor in a sort of a dance while “singing” without any musical background a song that seemed to be about politics was a heavy-set man with white hair and what appeared to be a familiar face. During my 35 plus years in and around the Capitol, I had seen many curious things, but this was about the most curious of all.

      I stared at the dancing, singing man. He, with a quizzical look on his face—probably matching the one on my own–stared back and continued his dance. I closed the door and went back to work. He continued singing and dancing, if you could call it that. It was a few days later when I finally realized what the strange apparition was….a private view of Charles Durning rehearsing one of the funniest movie routines I was ever to see–and one especially appropriate to the place where he was performing it.

      Durning was doing the famous routine in which the character portraying the governor explains how he stays out of trouble in politics by going a little bit this
      way, then a little bit that way from in the movie of the play “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” which was to start filming in the State Capitol building
      within a few days. I guess he felt the need to get the “feel of the place.” I cannot say that Durning looked that much like Gov. Dolph Briscoe who “played the role” in the real-life events surrounding the closing of the (in)famous “Chicken Ranch” Brothel just outside LaGrange on which the play and movie were based. (In fact, he looked much better.) However, I can say that he was obviously a better dancer and singer than Briscoe could ever have been.

      P.S. There has been a lot of speculation about the “role” the Chicken Ranch may have played in Texas Politics prior to its closing in 1973….but what little I know about that is a story for another day.

      ¨ The Capitol was open 24-hours per day, 364 days per year (all but Christmas) in those long, long ago innocent days.

      • Beerman

        Yes, it was a long, long ago innocent time in Austin. In those days, a politician was happy to get a free meal/drinks, a hunting trip, key sporting event tickets, etc, and maybe knock down a few hundred $$, here or there, to cover “expenses.” Now, pols are not happy unless it is in the hundreds of thousand $$$$, and includes income stream after they are gone. Times have changed from those long, long ago innocent days.

        • Indiana Pearl

          Read “Republic, Lost,” by Lawrence Lessig, about the destructive nature of money in politics.

          • Beerman

            Thanks for info.

        • WUSRPH

          As noted before, you cynicism is extreme.


    I apologize for taking up so much space…..but I will be out of town for a couple of days (family illness) and wanted to share my views on Dan Patrick’s success or failure as a lt. governor. Take them for what they are worth…which is probably not that much.

    When Dan Patrick was elected lt. governor both the right and the left thought it meant
    what Patrick termed “a new day” for at least the Texas Senate. The left feared that it meant that he would push thru the Senate a whole series of far-right proposals on immigration issues, school choice, budget and tax cuts and an assorted series of attacks on the achievements of the 20th Century. To the right, it meant the same thing….but, unlike the left, they looked forward to it especially since Patrick brought with him seven new “Tea Party” senators and was going to abolish the hated “two thirds rule”. But, today with only nine days left in Patrick’s first Regular Session as lt. governor it is interesting to note that neither side has seen its predictions come true.

    In fact, Patrick has been significantly unsuccessful in his attempts to pass major portions of his campaign promises including major parts of his anti-illegal immigrant program such as the bill to repeal the law allowing illegal alien children to pay in-state tuition at the state’s colleges or the measure to ban so-called “sanctuary cities”. Both proposals quickly won the approval of carefully stacked Senate panels but, to date, have yet to be able to pass the Senate over which he presides.

    Similarly, the far right was convinced that the day of “big spending liberals” in Austin was over and that, at the least, the State budget would be reduced…Instead, the budget being passed under Patrick’s leadership is billions of dollars larger than the last budget and no major “deregulation” measures have been adopted. And, while he was able to push a modified school vouchers bill thru the Senate, it quietly died in the House. The same seems to be the fate of his vaunted attempt to place a tighter cap on the growth of state spending which was skillfully maneuvered thru the Senate but has been reported by a house committee in a much changed version whose fate is still undetermined. It appears Patrick’s (and virtually every other Republican’s) goal of tax cut for business and tax relief for homeowners will be at least partially met, but it will not be the proposal he pushed and the amount of relief will be substantially less than the Senate originally approved.

    All in all, it appears that when the session ends more than half of Patrick’s campaign pledges will be unfulfilled—-something that should make the left feel less threatened
    and should dishearten the right.

    Patrick’s failure to remake the world in 140 days raises several questions. First, did he find that it was harder to “govern” than it was to attack on the campaign trail? Was he as powerful (or maybe as “conservative”) as many thought? Was he stymied by the presence of RINOs who still must be purged before his “new day” arrives or, perhaps, was the “system” more resilient than the either side thought it would be?

    • José

      Best wishes to you on taking care of your family business. I look forward to seeing your posts in the near future.


    UPDATED. SB 11 and SB 557 added to Calendar at late night meetings.

    SB 19 the alleged “ethics” bill has been placed on the House Calendar for Tuesday—the last day on which the House can consider it on second reading. It has been placed on the “Emergency Calendar” which gives it priority.

    In addition, SB 9—the much revised “spending cap” bill—has also been placed on the Tuesday Calendar. It is on Major State. That will give it a lesser priority than SB 19 but still higher than all but one other second reading bill on the calendar. All the second reading bills MUST pass the House by midnight Tuesday or they are DEAD.

    Althou SB 11, the campus carry bill, WAS NOT on the Calendar as originally distributed, a late report has it having been added to the Major State Calendar. The committee says it met after 9 pm to put SB 11 on the Calendar. That means is it still alive. The same thing happened to SB 575, the no abortion on insurance bill. It was placed on the Calendar after 11 pm Sunday night.

    NB:The action would appear to honor a reported arrangement with the Senate author that was not honored with the list distrusted earlier on Sunday night. That list had still not been changed by 11 pm. but the bill tracking system reported its placement on the calendar. The Calendar Committee did schedule a meeting for 11:10 pm, however.

    It should be noted, that the action of placing the bill on the Calendar may have taken place after the theoretical 10 pm deadline for the calendar distribution. Under House Rules a bill must have been placed on the Calendar at least 36 hours before it can be debated on the House Floor. The 10 pm deadline was designed to meet that requirement for bills to be debated on Tuesday. This means that opponents of SB 11 will probably be closely watching the clock in the hope that it will be reached for action before 36 hours. This would make it subject to a point of order. However, it is likely that the leadership will postpone the bill until after the 36 hours have expired in order to avoid such a possibility.

    Issues that have DIED include school vouchers, SB 4, SB 1968 the anti-union and Democratic Party bill and the bill to outlaw red light cameras..

    SB 10, the bill to take authority over political offenses away from Travis County, is on the Monday calendar.

    Another notable bill, SB 1760—which requires a 60% vote of a local governing body to adopt other than the “effective tax rate”—has passed the House. Action by the Senate is pending.

  • El Jefe

    RG, have you read Citizens United? You really should.

    • WUSRPH

      As I understand it, altho it has been some time since I read it, I do not think the question of requiring disclosure of dark money was addressed by Citizens United.


    Have a couple of good days without me….Hope to be back on Wednesday but that is up in the air.

    • Indiana Pearl

      Good luck!