“Instead of enforcing ethics standards, all of these things seem to license unethical behavior,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for government watchdog Public Citizen in Washington, D.C. The exceptions to the city’s new gift policy “license unlimited gifts and unlimited travel, and that is exactly what codes like this are supposed to prevent. This is very weak. There are some states that have no gift rules, and this pretty much rivals that type of standard.”
There are other exemptions to the rule, including if the gift is worth less than $50 and if it comes from a relative or someone with whom the elected official has a regular social acquaintance.
Theoretically, he said, that could mean a lobbyist could pay for numerous meals as long as they were under $50, or could provide lavish gifts by saying they were friends.
“The state standard, when it comes to gifts, is much too lenient,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan ethics watchdog in Austin. “An ethics policy that allows an individual or a business to give an extravagant gift of travel or entertainment kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an ethical wall.”
Feldman defended the law as one that will allow significantly stronger prosecutorial tools for elected city officials who cross the line.
And, he pointed out, they still are required by the Texas Ethics Commission to disclose any gifts they receive annually.
“We had no intention to prosecute someone for an offense under the ordinance that would not be an offense under state law,” he said.
He added that the most significant problem with most ethics rules is one of enforcement. Because he has promised to prosecute violators of these restrictions in municipal court, he said the revisions are sufficient.
“I hope I’ve made it clear to everyone that we fully intend to enforce this,” he said.
Certainly, a big part of the problem with the Texas Ethics Commission is lax enforcement, and miniscule punishments. (Often-unclear requirements that are frequently violated inadvertently is another issue, but one that gets less attention than the others.) If the city really is serious about enforcement, then that should make a big difference. As for Holman and McDonald’s complaints about what isn’t in the code, that is a concern, but if the voters cared enough to vote out people who acted egregiously then there’d be less of that behavior. Judging from state elections, voters don’t do that very often. That’s not an argument against changing the code in the way that Holman and McDonald advocate, but it is a reason why you don’t see much of a push for it beyond folks like them.