Well, no. But they do seem to be levying bigger fines, so maybe their gums are a little harder.
By every measure, the agency is issuing more — and larger — fines, the records show.
“There’s been a shift to focus more on enforcement and compliance,” said the commission’s chairman, San Antonio lawyer Ross Fischer.
He and others who know the agency believe a combination of factors are driving the trend, including technological advancements that make it easy for the public access to analyze records they previously couldn’t see. (The commission’s fine collections, it should be noted, go into the state’s general revenue pool, not the agency’s budget).
The commissioners are also receiving many more sworn complaints than they have in years past, especially during election years. In 2000, for example, 93 complaints were filed. Last year there were 388.
The commission, of course, is operating on rules crafted from laws passed by members of the Legislature — the folks among the most likely to face investigations and fines.
And not all of them think the system works.
State Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, received a $1,000 fine for listing a $25,000 contribution from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, as “B Perry”. He also failed to disclose Perry’s occupation and title.
Both pieces of information are required for large contributors, according to state law, and watchdogs would argue that officials could skirt full disclosure by submitting partially completed filings.
Edwards calls it “nitpicking.”
“They should get the information — the reporting should be thorough — but it doesn’t have to be to the extent that they are doing,” he said of the commission. “The Legislature needs to go through and make sure they’re not going overboard.”
I have no sympathy for Al Edwards, whose basic error seems to be exactly the sort of thing that the TEC should be enforcing, since there’s no good reason to omit that kind of information in most cases, and in this specific instance there’s plenty of motivation to leave it out. Having said that, I will agree that it isn’t easy to get these forms right, and well-intentioned candidates can and do get tripped up by minutia. I marveled during this election about obviously problematic finance reports, and it seems clear to me that the right answer here is a software fix. Imagine a TurboTax-like program for filling out campaign finance reports in a complete and compliant manner, for instance. Even trivial validation checks like not allowing a form to be submitted if a required field is left blank or has an improper value in it would go a long way. This would require legislative action and a funding source, neither of which the Lege is likely to be anxious to do, but I feel that the promise of reducing “nitpicky” violations would have some momentum behind it. I mean seriously, what’s the argument against this?
Anyway. One of the new toys that the Trib has given us is a searchable database of ethics fines, which I’m sure will be popular among the oppo research crowd. Check it out.