Ethics are emerging as a motif of the 2013 legislative session. Several bills have been filed on the subject, and the Texas Tribune has created a new “Lawmaker Explorer” app that lets users look for potential conflicts of interest via an online database. That being the case, it’s natural to look back to the last time the Texas Capitol was roiled by a pay-for-play scandal that came to be known as Sharpstown. As the Tribune‘s Jay Root explains in his historical account of the episode, it was far from the first corruption scandal in Texas politics. It is probably, however, the most notorious, and Root argues that it was the most impactful:
What sets Sharpstown apart are the deep reforms that were passed in its wake. While the abuses in the 1950s triggered passage of a “code of ethics” that barred lawmakers from engaging in conflicts of interest, the law was quickly considered ineffective.
Before Sharpstown, lawmakers could raise and spend campaign money with no meaningful disclosure. They were not required to file public reports about their income, holdings and liabilities. There was no open records law, little oversight of lobbyists and hardly any incentive to conduct the public’s business in the open.
In 1976, however, when Texas Monthly took a close look at the state of play post-Sharpstown, the magazine offered a slightly different analysis. The 1973 Legislature, Paul Burka noted, had produced the legal changes that Root’s article describes. Their effects, however, were indeterminate. “Genuine reform movements in America have always brought about a redistribution of political or economic power,” wrote Burka.
“Sharpstown produced neither; it was a reaction, not a movement.” So how much did Sharpstown matter?
The scandal, to summarize, started in 1971. Texas was a different place back in 1971. There was no such thing as Texas Monthly, for one thing. Urbanization was afoot, but rural voices carried the farthest in the halls of the Capitol. Democrats were the conservative party. They dominated state offices as thoroughly as Republicans do today, and thoroughly enough that the party’s leaders had become cavalier about some things. That became apparent when the federal Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against Frank Sharp, a Houston developer with his fingerprints all over Austin. Sharp, the feds charged, had been swapping stock for favors—special attention to and swift passage for a couple of little bills that would help his business, business which was, given that they held stock in it, also a key priority for several high-profile Democrats. By the time the dust settled, several legislators, including House Speaker Gus Mutscher, would be indicted. Others were deposed on a wave of anti-incumbent anger–including several who had been poised to take over the state’s top offices, and had never been directly tied to the scandal.
Good-government reformers hoped that Sharpstown would be a turning point in Texas politics: the moment when state legislators started to act—well, like people were keeping an eye on them. In some respects, that’s what seemed to happen. Price Daniel Jr., who became the Speaker of the House after Mutscher was turned out, was able to muscle the campaign finance and lobbyist oversight bills through his chamber. Burka, however, argued that this was a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc confusion; maybe Sharpstown was just the scandal that happened to happen at the moment when the state was reaching the end of “a long trend toward a more professional legislature.” As Root notes, the voters had a greater appetite for reform than the legislators did: “Despite the public clamor for transparency, getting the reforms passed was anything but easy.”
Complicating matters was that Sharpstown had some unintended consequences. That was apparent in the 1972 elections, when Preston Smith and Ben Barnes, the incumbent governor and lieutenant-governor, ran for the state’s top office. Smith had been directly implicated in the scandal (FEC documents indicated that he had made some suspicious stock trades during the period in question). Barnes hadn’t. But both were tainted in the eyes of voters, and neither even made the primary runoff. The race ultimately went to Dolph Briscoe, a state representative and rancher from Uvalde who would become famous for doing nothing. “Why Does Dolph Briscoe Want to Be Governor?” was the title of Texas Monthly‘s 1976 cover story on the governor. The author, Griffin Smith Jr, added another inquiry in the subtitle: “And when is he going to start?” That was about four years into the Briscoe administration.
Perhaps the greater problem, though, was that the Sharpstown reforms didn’t quite break the money-and-power connection in the way that reformers had hoped. Some liberals, Burka noted in 1976, felt that the campaign finance law was actually making their lives harder; conservatives had never had much reason to pretend that they weren’t favored by business interests, and so it was only liberals who had to look bad when everyone started to reveal who their donors were. And the provision that lobbyists could no longer entertain legislators only meant that lobbyists no longer had to indulge the legislators: “Most of them never liked legislators much anyway and greatly preferred each other’s company at mealtime.”
Details like that are a reminder of how difficult this territory is, especially in a state that may or may not have an instinctive grasp of the values that reformers want legislators to embrace. In the end both Burka and Root are apparently correct. The Sharpstown scandal spurred significant changes in Texas law. But the scandal did less to change the political culture that had enabled the scandal in the first place. It was an illustration of the need for government ethics laws, and as a cautionary tale about their limits.
(Paul Burka’s whole story, “Big Deal,” is available here.)