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campaign finance reform

Questioning CM Le’s residency

This sort of thing is practically a tradition in District F.

Steve Le

Steve Le

Houston City Councilman Steve Le last month became the fourth man to represent District F in the last seven years, and the third to face questions over whether he actually lives in the Alief-area district.

Houston’s city charter requires district council members to have lived in their districts for at least 12 months immediately preceding Election Day.

Le said he began renting a room from his cousin at her Alief home in January 2014. On his sworn application to appear on the city ballot last fall, Le said that by Election Day he would have lived there 20 months, which would date back to March 2014.

The new councilman, who ousted one-term incumbent Richard Nguyen, has more formal links to an address in Kingwood than to the Alief address on Wildacres Drive, however.

That angers Barbara Quattro, a longtime Alief civic leader who, with a few others, held signs outside Jones Hall questioning the new councilman’s residency when he and the rest of City Council were inaugurated last month.

“A candidate’s not actually being a resident has become so commonplace in District F that it’s turned into an inside joke,” said Quattro, who supported Nguyen’s reelection. “Piney Point? Pearland? Kingwood? Close enough to Alief.”

[…]

Houston political consultant Mustafa Tameez, who did outreach to Asian voters for former mayors Lee Brown and Bill White and has done work for state Rep. Hubert Vo, whose district overlaps District F, said part of the residency accusations stem from the multicultural nature of the district.

Many international communities have strongholds in the area, heavy with apartments and low-cost housing, Tameez said, but the political candidates representing these communities tend to be wealthier and reside outside the area.

“It hasn’t affected the voters or the outcome of elections,” Tameez said. “I also think that the notion of community is different in multicultural communities than traditional neighborhoods. I think in the past people identified as, ‘I live in Sharpstown.’ Today they may say, ‘I’m a Vietnamese-American.’ And so that boundary line as to where you live may not matter to the Vietnamese-American voters.”

Emphasis mine. Pretty good argument for a public finance system for city campaigns, if you ask me. Note that previous CM Richard Nguyen was both a resident of the area and a member of the working class, having been a city employee at the time of his election. We can debate the merits of living in a district one is elected to represent all day, but I doubt anyone would argue that folks in Nguyen’s economic class are over-represented on Council. As for the complaint, I suppose anything can happen, but if Dave Wilson isn’t in violation of our meaningless residency laws, then I don’t know how Steve Le – or anyone – could be.

Once again, I spoke too soon about the Ethics Commission and Ken Paxton

I’ll be damned.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Ethics Commission declined to pass an opinion that would have said it was okay for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to accept out-of-state gifts from donors to help pay the legal costs for his indictment.

At a meeting on Monday, the Texas Ethics Commission voted 4-3 on an opinion that would have interpreted state law to say that public employees in the attorney general’s office can accept out-of-state gifts from donors as long as the donors have no ties to Texas or the attorney general’s office. Five votes are required to approve an opinion on the Texas Ethics Commission, so the opinion failed to pass.

Texas Ethics Commission Chairman Paul Hobby said the process worked and he would not entertain another motion to pass the opinion.

Paxton could still seek out-of-state donors to help pay his legal fees. The opinion would not have settled the debate once and for all. Opinions from the Texas Ethics Commission are merely interruptions of state law and a defense from prosecution.

[…]

Hobby said banning an attorney general employee from taking out-of-state gifts would go beyond the authority of the Texas Ethics Commission.

“The legislature has prohibited certain things. In the premise of free society, all things are legal till they are not,” Hobby said. “For us to amend the statute and add those words where they don’t exist…that is beyond interpretation.”

See here for the origin story. This is the second time that the TEC has backed off issuing an opinion that would have suggested that out of state donors could contribute to a legal defense fund for Paxton, each time coming on the heels of a draft opinion to that effect. As noted, these opinions don’t carry the weight of law, and Paxton can go ahead and solicit donations to pay his lawyers anyway, but now if a complaint is filed he can’t point to the TEC and say “hey, they think it’s legal”. The best answer is for the Lege to pass a bill clarifying the existing laws and closing this loophole. If Greg Abbott cares as much about ethics reform as he claims to, he should support that. I look forward to someone filing a bill to that effect and seeing what happens. The Trib has more.

Paxton can get some help with his legal bills

With some conditions attached, for whatever that’s worth.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton could tap out-of-state supporters to pay his legal defense team but must ensure those funds have not been funneled from any Texas donors, according to a draft advisory opinion from the state’s ethics regulator.

The Texas Ethics Commission is scheduled to vote Monday on legal guidance that would give Paxton, or any employee in the attorney general’s office, the green light to accept gifts from some donors.

If approved, it would clear the way for the embattled attorney general to accept contributions to cover his legal expenses from out-of-state donors, with certain conditions.

State law prohibits agency officials from accepting a “benefit” from someone under the agency’s oversight.

However, the ethics commission has said situations exist in which Paxton and his employees could accept gifts – namely from an out-of-state donor with no pending matters before the attorney general’s office – but that safeguards would have to put in place to prevent potential conflicts of interest.

The draft opinion for the first time addresses the possibility of money bundling and suggests heightened disclosure for gifts to employees of the attorney general’s office to avoid the perception of corruption.

[…]

“We do not think that a person who is subject to the jurisdiction of a public servant or a law enforcement agency can evade the restrictions … using another person as a conduit for making a gift to the public servant (e.g., by giving a benefit to another with the instructions that the benefit then be passed to the public servant),” commission staff wrote in a draft opinion released this week. “Similarly, the public servant would be prohibited from accepting a benefit if the public servant knows that the true source of the benefit is a person who is subject to the jurisdiction of the public servant.”

The draft also proposes a set of “best practices” for disclosure, including recommendations that any such gift, along with its source, value and a description, be revealed publicly within 30 days.

A “diligent inquiry” also would have to be performed by whomever receives a gift to make sure the donor has no connection to Texas and is not under the attorney general’s jurisdiction. That inquiry, according to the latest draft, also would need to verify that the out-of-state donor “is not operating as a conduit” for someone else.

Watchdog groups reacted with swift criticism, saying the latest proposal invites the potential for an already-indicted attorney general to put a “for-sale sign on the AG’s office to pay for his criminal defense.”

“A close reading suggests that the commission has qualms about this convoluted ethical blank check,” said Craig McDonald, director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, which has filed multiple criminal complaints against Paxton, including one related to his current indictments. “The opinion should have been written in one word: No!”

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree that the best answer is “No”, and it would be for the Governor or Lt. Governor, but apparently the law that specifies no gifts for them does not include the AG. So let’s make sure that someone files a bill to correct that oversight in 2017. Greg Abbott has claimed he’s all about ethics reform, despite his lack of leadership on the issue last session. Let’s see where he stands on this.

The Chron on the El Franco Lee successor selection process

First, a lamentation.

El Franco Lee

Not even a month has passed since Sylvester Turner was sworn in as Houston’s new mayor, and already the next election cycle is just around the corner. Early voting for party primaries is about a month away, running from Feb. 16 through Feb. 26. Election Day is March 1. Safely gerrymandered districts often mean that these party primaries serve as the functional election for the state Legislature, Congress and other positions. It can be frustrating to know that the November election has a predetermined outcome for all too many politicians, but this version of democracy feels practically Athenian in contrast to the process for replacing the late El Franco Lee, the longtime Democratic county commissioner for Harris County Precinct 1.

Because Lee died after the filing date to get on the ballot, his name will remain voters’ only choice. Republicans and Libertarians offered no opponent for the general election and the Green Party candidate has withdrawn. Under state law, Democratic Party precinct chairs for Lee’s precinct will select his replacement. At no point in this process will voters in Precinct 1 have a direct say about who will represent them on Commissioners Court.

This election-free appointment should be anathema to the values of our representative republic, but the problem isn’t new. County government has a history of avoiding an active electorate. In fact, Lee never faced a serious challenger throughout his 30-year career as county commissioner. If his successor has similar luck, it is possible that people could live their entire voting lives without seeing a single competitive race in Precinct 1.

I don’t disagree with any of this, but it should be noted that the process to select a party’s nominee when the filing deadline has passed is prescribed by the Legislature. You may not like the idea of having such a small group of people (myself included) picking the next Commissioner, but look at it this way – if Commissioner Lee had died in, say, October, he would have remained on the ballot and then his spot on the Court would have been filled by Judge Emmett, all by himself, as was the case when Jerry Eversole resigned. That person would have gotten to serve for two full years before having to run to serve the remainder of the four-year term, and would have been a heavy favorite to not just win but be essentially unopposed at that time. It is what it is.

We certainly could do this process differently, and now is as good a time as we’ll ever get to discuss what if any alternative methods might be better. One obvious possibility is that we just declare a special election to fill the seat for the next term – Judge Emmett can appoint an interim Commissioner as he sees fit for the rest of the year – and let whoever wants in file for the now-vacant position. Of course, given the timing that may either cause vacancies in other races, or may prevent someone who might have jumped at the opportunity had it presented itself at another time to let it pass. It also all but guarantees that the winner would be decided in a much-lower-turnout December runoff. Is that better? Is there another way that’s better than that? You tell me. It would have been nice for the Chron to offer a suggestion to go along with the complaining.

Oh, and one more thing: On the matter of people possibly living their entire voting lives without ever having the chance to vote in a real Commissioners race in Precinct 1, I have five words: “Term limits”, and “campaign finance reform”. Either of them would address the issue. As above you need to take that up with the Legislature. I don’t care for term limits, but if they’re good enough for City Council, they’re surely good enough for the much more powerful office of County Commissioner.

After some griping about the, um, flexible ethics standards for County government, the Chron gets to what they would like from the next Commissioner in Precinct 1.

Normally editorials urge voters to select good candidates, but now that duty falls upon Democratic Party officials. We encourage them to follow County Judge Ed Emmett’s example and reject the politicians who rushed at first word of Lee’s untimely death to ask for an appointment. Harris County needs commissioners who are mindful of the future. There’s nearly as many people living in the unincorporated county as there are in the city of Houston, and county governance wasn’t designed to handle that burden.

Precinct chairs should look for someone ready to tackle this issue, and that should include discussions about incorporation in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, merging city and county services, and bringing greater transparency to county business. The next commissioner of Precinct 1 also will have the responsibility of saving the Astrodome.

You know what I’m looking for. Again, I basically agree with the Chron list, though again some specifics from them would have been nice. Precinct 1 is overwhelmingly part of the city of Houston, so it’s reasonable that the Commissioner there be a leader in forging city-county relations. I’ll give this some more thought and write it up when I have something to say.

Change to term limits will be on the ballot

Whatever.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

Houston voters will decide whether elected city officials should serve two four-year terms rather than three two-year terms starting in 2016, potentially lengthening the terms of some current council members.

The City Council voted 12-5 Wednesday to place the item on the November ballot. Councilmen Richard Nguyen, Mike Laster, Steve Costello, Michael Kubosh and C.O. Bradford voted no.

The change, if passed, would take effect for officials elected this fall. Current freshman council members could pick up two four-year terms and those serving their second term would be permitted one four-year term. Elected officials who are already term-limited would not be affected by the change.

The council has generally supported lengthening terms, but there was debate about whether such a change should go into effect immediately or in 2020, when no current council members would benefit.

See here for the background. Mayor Parker had pushed for a 2020 start date, but CM Jerry Davis’ amendment to move it to 2016 carried the day. As I said before, I don’t consider this an improvement on the current system and I don’t intend to vote Yes. I don’t know if this issue can get a full public hearing or not with HERO also on the ballot, but I do agree with the Chron editorial board about this:

While we agreed with the ad hoc committee on charter reform at the time, new facts on the ground should lead council members to reconsider their votes. Beyond the fight over the equal rights ordinance, changes to fundraising laws also raise additional issues that haven’t yet been considered. City Hall candidates used to be prohibited from raising money for 10 months between election cycles. This blackout ordinance, passed in 1992, was temporarily blocked by a federal judge earlier this year.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, monetary donations to political campaigns are protected as free speech. Houston policy makers have yet to comprehend the long-term local consequences of this ruling. Before moving forward on a vote, City Council should appoint a commission of experts to study how campaign fundraising interacts with term limits.

As you know, that’s singing from my hymnal. It’s not too late to have that conversation about campaign finances regardless of what happens in this referendum. That lawsuit filed by At Large #1 candidate Trebor Gordon, for which the aforementioned injunction was granted, may also force the issue. (A similar lawsuit was filed in Austin two weeks ago as well.) Let’s tackle the whole question, not just a piece of it. Campos has more.

No, we shouldn’t have any kind of elections for SCOTUS justices

Your junior Senator, ladies and gentlemen.

Not Ted Cruz

Not Ted Cruz

Dismayed by a pair of Supreme Court decisions upholding Obamacare and gay marriage, Republican Ted Cruz presided over a packed Senate hearing Wednesday calling for judicial elections and term limits to rein in what he called “judicial tyranny” and “the abuse of judicial power.”

While term limits or recall elections for Supreme Court justices are considered a distant long-shot, both ideas have gained traction with some legal theorists – and especially with social conservatives who are a key part of Cruz’s strategy to win the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

As chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee on the federal courts, Cruz took center stage in an afternoon hearing that aired a host of conservative grievances with recent high court decisions that have remade the political landscape on health care and same-sex marriage.

“So long as justices on the Court insist on behaving like politicians, acting like a political body, and making policy decisions instead of following the law, they should not expect to be exempt from the authority of the voters who disagree with their policy decisions,” Cruz said.

The idea of retention elections has been widely panned by critics on the left and right, many of whom fear it would politicize the highest echelon of the judicial branch and expose the justices to unseemly political campaigns.

Delaware U.S. Sen. Christopher Coons, the ranking Democrat on the panel, suggested that the proposal is an overreaction to a pair of court decisions that went against the views of conservatives.

“We cannot decry judicial activism and create a Constitution crisis every time that a big case comes out against us,” Coons said. “The Supreme Court has been a vital arbiter of political interests precisely because it is insulated by the vagaries of politics and political interests.”

Coons and other opponents of Cruz’s plan argued that the current Supreme Court has delivered a string of conservative victories on guns, voting rights and campaign spending limits.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: For a guy that’s supposed to be so freaking smart, Ted Cruz sure says a lot of stupid things. Putting aside the obviously sore-lose-crybaby motivation for this proposal and the fact that the Founders intended Supreme Court justices to be above politics (hence the lifetime appointments; you’d think a self-styled “Constitutional conservative” would have some respect for that), electing Supreme Court justices is an objectively terrible idea. The public will be woefully under-informed about the candidates, who will necessarily be limited in what they can campaign on. All of the conflict-of-interest problems with judicial elections at lower levels will exist times a billion. And speaking of “billion”, the amount of super PAC/special interest money that would flood into these campaigns would be enough to choke a Koch brother. There’s just nothing to recommend this.

Now, some people have suggested perhaps limiting SCOTUS terms to something like 18 years, which would allow for regular turnover while still shielding the Justices from electoral politics. (Which is not to say they’re not themselves political, just that they could continue to make rulings without wondering about their existential future.) I could be persuaded to support such a plan, if I thought there was a chance it could be approved. But Cruz isn’t interested in improving anything other than his own side’s advantage. I suppose that much is smart, but so would be having a plan that had a chance of actually succeeding.

On judicial elections and campaign finance

Ross Ramsey raises an interesting point.

BagOfMoney

It might seem silly to elect people who promise they won’t represent you, their political party or their donors, but that’s what we expect judges to do. They’re supposed to apply the law, and if they do any of those other things, they’re probably out of line.

Florida elects judges but bars them from raising their own campaign money. Lots of Texas judges — and Texas lawyers —would love to see similar restraints here.

“If you are an incumbent judge and you call a lawyer and ask for money, what is that lawyer going to say? No?” asks Wallace Jefferson, a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court who now practices law in Austin. “That incumbent judge is going to raise more money. But no one should feel pressured to contribute.”

Better, he says, to take the judges out of the fundraising business and leave the transactional part of politics to campaign committees and others.

It could happen: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Florida’s law [in April] after challengers said it violated their First Amendment rights. That court was also concerned with whether asking for money sullied the impartiality of the elected judges. The court decided that was a serious enough public interest to justify the fundraising restriction.

“Simply put, the public may lack confidence in a judge’s ability to administer justice without fear or favor if he comes to office by asking for favors,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

[…]

This legislative session, state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed a bill that would start public financing of campaigns for appellate judges in Texas. It was sent to the House Elections Committee on March 9 and never heard from again.

Sen. and former state District Judge Joan Huffman, R-Houston, has a bill that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in judicial races — the idea is to free judges from the slings and arrows of party politics. That one is stalled, as is its identical twin in the House, filed by Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas.

Jefferson and Tom Phillips, who preceded him as the Texas high court’s chief justice, wrote an amicus brief in the federal case, along with a couple of former chiefs of Alabama’s Supreme Court. “As former Chief Justices who have observed countless elections in our own States, and run as candidates for judicial office, we are well-acquainted with the genuine dangers — and sometimes actual abuse — present when judicial candidates personally solicit campaign contributions from parties and lawyers,” they wrote.

Now that the Florida law has been upheld, Jefferson thinks “it would be a step in the right direction” for Texas to take judges out of the campaign fundraising business.

“To me, money is not in the center except to the extent that the public believes, if a judge is accepting money from a lawyer or litigant, that they’ll be more likely to favor that lawyer or litigant,” Jefferson says. “I don’t believe that is generally true, but the public believes it. And I understand that belief. It undermines the ideal of impartial justice.”

I have been critical of Wallace Jefferson in the past for promoting the non=solution of making judicial elections non-partisan while ignoring the real problem of how judicial races are financed, so let me compliment him here for his advocacy for doing something about that problem. Pigs will fly before the Lege passes a bill allowing any kind of public financing of elections, but it’s still worth pursuing (kudos to Rep. Anchia for filing a bill this session to do that). If Jefferson, Tom Phillips, and Nathan Hecht can all support this, a bill like Rep. Anchia’s could get bipartisan support. The money people will fight it to the death, but that’s a fight we should all be willing to engage. Let’s get a nice long list of coauthors for this bill next time.

Abbott vetos Huffman loophole bill

Good.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Gov. Greg Abbott has vetoed legislation that would have allowed married elected officials to hide their personal financial business from the prying eyes of Texas voters, according to the author of the legislation.

The so-called spousal loophole provision had been tacked as amendments to two bills that were otherwise aimed at increasing disclosure and eliminating conflicts of interest. State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, said she never should have accepted the 11th-hour spousal loophole amendment from state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.

As Abbott’s decision neared and Davis was asked for input, she wound up adding her voice to those calling for a veto.

“I haven’t seen a veto statement, but I have been advised by the governor’s office that both [bills] have been vetoed due to concerns about the so-called ‘spousal loophole’ added by the Senate in the last days of session,” Davis said. “I’m disappointed this Senate amendment put the governor in the position of having to veto two ethics bills that were originally written to make government more transparent and accountable.”

Davis said she would re-double efforts to pass “clean” ethics legislation in the next session of the Legislature.

[…]

The death of the two bills, HB 3511 and HB 3736, represented the final blow to Abbott’s calls for sweeping ethics reform in the notoriously loose Texas Legislature. After a series of far-reaching reform proposals went down in flames at the end of the session, those bills contained several compromise measures that Abbott wanted.

During his State of the State speech in February, Abbott urged lawmakers to “dedicate this session to ethics reform.”

Collectively, Davis’ two bills would have tightened requirements on personal financial disclosures, curbed conflicts of interest on state government boards and commissions, and required state elected officials to disclose government contracts and bond counsel work.

But the bills were marred by the inclusion of Huffman’s spousal loophole amendment. Huffman now faces a sworn ethics complaint, from a Democrat, related to her own spouse’s financial activity. Carol Wheeler, a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee, has alleged that the senator filed “false” information by failing to list more than 35 businesses in which her husband has a stake.

See here and here for the background. I never had much faith in Abbott’s embrace of ethics reform anyway, but even if the Davis bills had passed in their pre-Huffman form, Abbott’s continued embrace of dark money makes it all largely moot anyway. There’s no fixing the system as long as a handful of avaricious billionaires and their well-paid henchmen and henchwomen run amok over it.

Ethics complaint filed against Sen. Huffman

From the Lone Star Project:

Sen. Joan Huffman

The Lone Star Project has learned that a complaint was filed Wednesday with the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) alleging that Republican State Senator Joan Huffman (SD17 – Houston) is in violation of section § 572.023 of the Texas Government Code for failure to disclose a financial interest in 30 business entities controlled by her husband, Keith Lawyer. The complaint can be seen here.

Current Texas law requires state elected officials to report their financial holdings and activities as well as those of their spouses and any dependent children. Also according to the Texas Ethics Commission, a filer must report information about community property on their state disclosure documents—including any businesses formed by a spouse during the marriage. According to the complaint, Huffman has repeatedly failed to disclose her husband’s business interests.

Huffman’s Personal Loophole Amendment

Anyone wondering why Joan Huffman filed an amendment in the closing weeks of the legislative session that carves out a loophole to eliminate the requirement that spousal assets be disclosed now has an answer. Huffman’s amendment was about Joan Huffman and giving her cover for an ongoing violation of state law.

If Governor Abbott signs the bill containing the Huffman amendment into law, state officials will be able to hide assets through their spouses, opening a massive loophole for lawmakers to engage in conflicts of interest by accepting gifts and income sources in the name of a husband or wife. No one should think it won’t happen. Former State Representative Linda Harper-Brown drove a luxury Mercedes-Benz provided by a lobbyist, but registered in the name of Harper-Brown’s spouse.

See here for the background on Huffman’s amendment and here for the Chron story. This is happening as several members of the Texas Ethics Commission have stated that the Lege took a step backward on ethics reform and enforcement – despite Greg Abbott making “ethics reform” an emergency item for them – and sent a letter to Abbott urging him to veto the bill that contains Huffman’s amendment; they had favored the bill before she stuck that amendment in.

Normally this sort of thing doesn’t amount to much overall. Complaints get filed all the time, and many of them are over small disputes and minor violations. When it becomes a problem is when there is a perception that there’s pervasive corruption. Think back to 2006 and all the scandals the national Republicans faced, and how it helped turn that election into a Democratic wave, built as much on lower Republican turnout (including here in Texas) than anything else. But now you’ve got Huffman, you’ve got Ken Paxton, you’ve got Rick Perry, you’ve got the escalating war against Michael Quinn Sullivan and his everflowing river of “dark money” – these things can add up, if they individually amount to something. The Republicans won’t even be able to blame it all on those dirty hippies in Travis County anymore, too. It all may come to nothing, or mostly to nothing, but if it doesn’t, I’d be a little worried about it if I were a Republican strategist. If the people start to think you’re all a bunch of crooks, that more than anything can help spur a change. The Press has more.

Further lessons in throwing money at dishonest people

It’s so sad seeing such savvy businessmen being so badly fleeced, isn’t it?

A second major donor to the conservative group that secretly recorded elected officials and lobbyists says he stopped providing financial support after growing dissatisfied with how his money was being used.

Anthony Holm, a staple in Texas conservative circles and a consultant who has worked on behalf of top statewide Republicans, including former Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Ken Paxton, tapped a Virginia-based nonprofit that he runs to give a $150,000 grant to the American Phoenix Foundation in 2011, tax filings show.

[…]

According to IRS filings, Holm used his First Amendment Alliance Educational Fund, a tax exempt group whose website says it is “committed to exposing corruption and inconsistencies in government action and the public sector,” to make the six-figure grant to the American Phoenix Foundation.

In a statement Friday, Holm said funded the American Phoenix Foundation while its efforts were focused outside of Texas, noting that he knew nothing of the group’s recent plans to covertly record the state’s political elite. All funding and contact with the American Phoenix Foundation, he said, quickly came to a halt following his donation four years ago.

“Shortly after funding APF, I became uncomfortable with their operations and ceased supporting them,” Holm said. “I have not been in communication with the organization in three or four years.”

See here for the background. Holm was the mouthpiece for Ken Paxton who kept assuring us all that those charges filed against him were nothing but a liberal plot, so you’d think he’d be familiar with the kind of dishonesty that powers groups like APF, but apparently not. The lesson here to me is that some people just have more money than they can reasonably use or keep track of. Higher marginal tax rates would help spare them this kind of embarrassment in the future. I’m sure they’ll understand.

Ethics reform dies its expected death

The only surprise is that it took this long.

BagOfMoney

With no collective will to expose dark money contributions in Texas, a major ethics overhaul was snuffed out in the waning hours of the 2015 legislative session.

“It’s dead,” Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said Saturday afternoon. “When the Senate chose not to include campaign disclosure reform at all, there’s really no reason to go forward. That was the most important thing from the House’s perspective.”

Cook was referring to the dark money provision that would require politically active nonprofits, which have poured millions into state and federal elections in recent years, to disclose their donors.

Hoping to find a last-ditch compromise, Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who pushed the reform effort through the state Senate, wrote a letter urging House members to strike a deal by passing what both chambers have already agreed on. But that didn’t include the dark money amendment — an idea that has pitted Republicans against each other.

Taylor, along with Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Senate, have been unwilling to embrace any restrictions on the anonymously contributed money, which influential conservatives have fought to keep secret. Last session, then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill requiring disclosure of dark money and Abbott applauded him for it.

“The fact that folks are championing dark money is amazing to me,” Cook said.

Taylor offered two different versions of a compromise to a joint House-Senate “conference committee,” made up of negotiators from each chamber. Neither had dark money restrictions in it, but they would have strengthened considerably the disclosures of legislative conflicts of interest, shed more light on lobbyist wining and dining, and required lawmakers to reveal more sources of their income.

“While we disagree on substance, it is our hope that the House shares our desire to be accountable to the people we serve,” Taylor wrote. “It would be an embarrassing failure of leadership if the House opts to let this important legislation die in conference committee, especially during a session [that’s] supposed to be devoted to strengthening the ethical standards of elected officials. Texans expect us to deliver.”

With a Sunday night deadline for bills to be passed looming, a handful of ethics proposals remain viable, including a proposal shedding more light on elected officials who make money from local governments and another bill closing the “double-dipping” loophole that longtime politicians can use — as Perry once did — to draw a salary and pension at the same time.

But those minor tweaks are a far cry from the sweeping reforms that Abbott called for on the campaign trail and again in February, when he told lawmakers during his state of the state address that he wanted to “dedicate this session to ethics reform.”

Remember when Greg Abbott was all about “major” ethics reform? Those were the days. Surely none but the most gullible among us believed it in the first place, but even if one held on to a thread of hope, surely his lack of any leadership on the issue during the session told us all the real story. The fact that “dark money” regulations got this far tells me that it is possible for real ethics reform to happen – Republicans are the bigger targets of this kind of campaign spending these days, so it’s not really a straight partisan issue – but in the absence of actual leadership from the Governor’s office, it will probably take a major (and well-timed) scandal for it to happen. Good luck with that.

Or maybe it is hopeless, at least as things now stand:

All that Republican infighting about revealing political “dark money” during the just-concluded session of the Texas Legislature was probably for naught.

Gov. Greg Abbott has come out firmly against the idea.

Speaking at a news conference Monday in the Capitol, Abbott said he had already written about the issue when he was on the Texas Supreme Court, telling reporters that legislation requiring secret political donors to come out of the shadows would violate the U.S. Constitution. Proponents of dark money disclosure dispute the claim.

“I’ve already written about it as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court,” Abbott said. “I wrote that laws like that are unconstitutional, and I based that decision on United States Supreme Court decisions, and I think it’s important for legislators not to try to pass laws that have already been ruled unconstitutional.”

Abbott stopped short of saying that he would’ve vetoed a dark money disclosure bill if it had reached his desk, but his opposition makes any such legislation a remote possibility. Opposition from influential conservative groups that use dark money to fund their campaign activities hasn’t helped the pro-disclosure crowd much, either.

[…]

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, assistant professor at the Stetson University College of Law, wrote in a 2011 scholarly paper that Citizens United and another landmark case known as Doe vs. Reed give “considerable leeway” for legislators to require disclosure of money used to influence elections.

“In other words, the Supreme Court just expanded the constitutional bounds for requiring disclosure of the funding of election-related speech, and states should use this license to expand their disclosure laws accordingly,” she wrote.

Which only goes to show that Abbott was a lousy legal scholar who fit the law to his opinions. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

And just when you think it couldn’t get any more ridiculous:

It’s no secret that Texas legislators make poverty wages — $7,200 a year to be exact — so they generally must have some other source of income to make ends meet.

A look at Sen. Joan Huffman’s 2014 ethics disclosures, however, doesn’t shed much light on that: All she lists for “occupational income” is her Senate salary. Combined with some stock dividends, the grand total of disclosed income comes to no more than about $12,000 a year — even though the Houston Republican reported living in a River Oaks home appraised at $3.2 million.

One explanation for the gap might stem from something that’s not included in her ethics reports: any mention of the income or vast business holdings of her husband, nightclub owner and manager Keith Lawyer, who is tied to dozens of businesses with current or past filings at the office of the Texas secretary of state. Lawyer briefly became an issue in the Houston Republican’s 2008 Senate race, amid reports that Huffman received heavy support from interests tied to liquor, gambling and nightclubs.

Huffman says she has fully complied with state disclosure laws. And she lists interests in one business entity, a ranch partnership she owns with her husband, on her 2014 report.

But the Houston senator’s last-minute advocacy of controversial amendments widening the so-called “spousal loophole” — quietly slipped onto bills that were supposed to increase transparency — will make it even harder for voters to untangle the finances of their elected representatives in Austin.

Meanwhile, her role in pushing for the changes has sparked criticism from government watchdogs and her former Democratic opponent.

“This amendment does not suggest that she is interested in allowing constituents, Texans, or other legislators who are voting on bills she may bring or sponsor or champion, [to] know anything about areas in which she may have a conflict of interest,” said Rita Lucido, a Houston lawyer and Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Huffman last year.

Huffman said in an interview on Saturday night that she did not push the change in the law to shield her husband’s business interests from public view. And she said she has always disclosed what state ethics laws says she must.

“I think I report exactly what I’m required to report under the law, and I will continue to do so and follow the law utterly to its exact requirement,” she said.

Asked if she could afford to live on the limited income she reports on her ethics reports, Huffman said: “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

All together now: It’s what’s legal that’s the real scandal. Thanks for illustrating that so clearly to us, Joan. More here from the Trib and from the Lone Star Project, and a joint statement from TPJ and Public Citizen is here.

A brief lesson in the value of disclosure and transparency

I confess, I have not been following the “wingnut activists videoing everyone at the Capitol” clown show very closely, but the absurdity of it all has been kicked up to the point where I couldn’t ignore it any more.

The activist group employing people who have been secretly recording lawmakers have talked about having a bipartisan mission to root out misdeeds of lawmakers no matter the political stripe.

But four large donors to the American Phoenix Foundation — the Strake Foundation, the State Policy Network, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, and Jeff Sandefer’s Ed Foundation — are well-known backers of conservative causes.

The Strake Foundation, founded by George Strake, a former Texas Republican Party chairman from Houston, has given $30,000 to American Phoenix since the group’s founding in 2010, according to IRS filings with Guidestar.org. Sandefer, a former adviser to Rick Perry, has given a total of $200,000 through his foundation. The Arlington, Va.-based State Policy Network and the Franklin Center each gave $25,000 in 2012 to American Phoenix.

In the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2012, American Phoenix reported donations and grants totaling $182,225. IRS rules do not require the Austin-based nonprofit to reveal individual donors.

[…]

Eric Bearse, a Republican political consultant and speechwriter who has worked in the past for House Speaker Joe Straus, called American Phoenix’s claims of training journalists and trying to ferret out information about politicians of all stripes “a total smoke screen.”

“I have thought from the beginning that this is an attempt to go after Speaker Straus and Republicans in the House who have supported his leadership,” Bearse said Thursday. “They are focused on one goal, which is to undermine the speaker.”

“The speaker’s hold on the office has increased over the years, and his opponents have grown more desperate because of that,” Bearse added. “This is the most desperate attempt yet.”

Who could have guessed that a bunch of secretive operatives with close ties to the world’s least honest videographer could have been less than fully forthcoming about their motives? And now, as RG Ratcliffe notes, one of their sugar daddies is proclaiming to be unhappy with how his money has been spent.

Reached for comment Thursday, Sandefer said he was not aware of the group’s plan to secretly film lawmakers and was unhappy with his investment after he received no feedback on how the group was using his money.

“I was unaware that they were planning to film politicians. Our intent was that they were going to train journalists,” Sandefer said. “We were unhappy with a lack of progress in training journalists and asked for the money back. And we did not receive any money back.”

Just breaks your heart, doesn’t it? As Juanita notes, one should not feel too sorry for Mr. Sandefer. One should instead chuckle heartily, while noting that if we had stronger disclosure and transparency laws for campaigns and PACs and what have you – all of which these very donors are fanatically committed to opposing, mind you – they might have had a clearer idea about where their dollars were going. Can’t trust anyone these days, I tell you. PDiddie has more.

The odds never favor ethics reforms

Better to keep your hopes down and not suffer too much disappointment.

BagOfMoney

Gov. Greg Abbott pledged on the campaign trail to lead the charge to improve the state’s ethics laws, and now lawmakers and advocates pushing for reform are looking to the newly elected governor to help breathe life into proposals at the Legislature.

Lawmakers of both parties at the state Capitol talk a big game when it comes to strengthening laws aimed at rooting out corruption or providing more transparency to the public. That mostly has amounted to lip service, advocates of open government say, as substantive ethics reform has continually been curbed.

This session, efforts again will include attempts to require disclosure of contracts elected officials and their families have with the public sector, to make lawmakers’ personal financial statements available online, and to slow down the revolving door of lawmakers leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists. All have failed previously.

There also are plans to propose legislation addressing secret campaign donors.

And a package of ethics measures Abbott laid out on the campaign trail, from putting more teeth into conflicts-of-interest statutes to beefing up campaign finance reporting requirements, are expected to get serious attention this session.

“Gov. Abbott made this a large part of his campaign for a good reason,” said state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a second-term Republican from Southlake. “People are afraid that somehow we’re working on things that could enrich other politicians.”

[…]

Tom “Smitty” Smith of watchdog group Public Citizen Texas said he remains cynical about what actually will come to fruition, noting Abbott’s plan did not include any mention of so-called “dark money” – political contributions in which the donor is not disclosed.

“Abbott has clearly signaled he wants to do some sort of ethics reform,” Smith said. “It’s more of a matter of, what is a reform?”

Bet the under, that’s my advice. It’s not even all on Abbott, to be honest, but more about the MQS mafia. Of course, they’re big backers of Abbott, who I expect will be honest enough to stay bought. Even if some form of ethics reform gets through, kneecapping the Public Integrity Unit and trimming funds for the Texas Ethics Commission will ensure that any new rules will be largely unenforceable anyway. So stay pessimistic, but hope for the best.

Term limits change approved by Council committee

One step closer to the ballot.

HoustonSeal

Most council members are in favor of changing term limits from three two-year terms to two four-year terms.

They will refer their recommendation to the mayor, who will then put it up for a vote during a regular council meeting.

“If in fact the full council supports it, it then will be added to the November 2015 ballot,” Council member Larry Green said.

He is one of the 10 members who voted for the recommendation.

The ad-hoc City Charter Review Committee consists of all 16 council members, but Green said the committee vote doesn’t necessarily mean it will pass.

“There are some council members who wanted to see other changes along with term limits,” he said. “And so they may not be in support if some of the other items don’t get up to vote to be added to the ballot.”

See here for the background. I’ve explained my problems with four year terms before, so I’ll spare you the usual kvetching. Given the abolition of the fundraising blackout period, it’s even harder for me to see the justification for four year terms. Any incumbent that doesn’t go into their re-election year with a six figure-plus campaign treasury will have committed political malpractice. How exactly is this going to make things better? We’ll see how it goes when it comes up for a final vote.

Expect “dark money” to stay dark

Nice recommendations, but they’re not going anywhere.

BagOfMoney

Labeling so-called dark money spending a corrupting force in the democratic process, the House Committee on State Affairs issued a set of recommendations after Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, directed the panel a year ago to dive into the topic during the interim.

Strauss and his lieutenants have been frequent targets of the state’s highest-spending politically active 501(c)(4), Empower Texas.

Nonprofits established under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(4) currently are allowed to spend money to influence elections but do not have to reveal who is funding the efforts. The groups have argued their donor lists are constitutionally protected.

Campaign cash from politically active nonprofits that do not disclose donors represents just a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into Texas elections.

But lawmakers on the House panel said in the report that “if we fail to act, we leave the opportunity for a growing number of entities to anonymously manipulate and control our elections, which undermines the democratic process.”

“The ability to give and spend anonymously through highly sophisticated means, often by obtaining 501(c)(4) status, corrupts the free democratic process for everyone,” the report said. “It is fundamentally vital that the legislature increase the transparency of our campaign finance system and protect the integrity of our elections, while providing for laws that meet constitutional scrutiny.”

[…]

Among the recommendations included in the report are a call for the Legislature to pass a bill to “ensure all political entities spending substantial funds to influence elections” be required to disclose donors like a traditional political action committee.

The panel also recommended lawmakers require 501(c)(4)s to provide a check box for donors to opt out of having their money used for politicking, a model that’s currently used in Utah, which was rocked by a dark money scandal in 2013.

You may recall that a bill like this passed out of the Lege last time, where it was met by Rick Perry’s veto pen. That’s the one where Dan Patrick demanded a re-vote because he didn’t realize what he had voted for the first time. He won’t make that mistake again. Expect this one to get deep-sixed in the Senate. Patrick and his minions like their money dark.

Bell ordered to pay $300K to RGA

Ouch.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Unsuccessful 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, once awarded $2 million in his lawsuit against the Republican Governors Association, has instead been ordered to pay the organization $300,000 in legal fees after losing on appeal.

The case dates to the closing days of the 2006 campaign, when the national association wrote two $500,000 checks to the campaign of Gov. Rick Perry, Bell’s Republican opponent.

After losing to Perry by 9 percentage points, Bell filed suit, arguing that the association violated state law by making political donations without appointing a Texas campaign treasurer or supplying a complete donor list. In 2010, Travis County District Judge John Dietz agreed, awarding Bell $2 million, or double the amount of the disputed contribution, as allowed by state law.

Last year, however, the 3rd Court of Appeals overturned Dietz’s ruling, saying out-of-state organizations cannot be penalized for disclosure violations and are not required to designate a state treasurer. Bell appealed, but the Texas Supreme Court declined to accept the case, leaving the appeals court ruling intact.

The appeals court also returned the case to Dietz to determine how much money — if any — Bell owed the association for attorney fees.

Last week, Dietz signed a judgment ordering Bell to pay $300,000 — with an additional $30,000 due if Bell appeals to the 3rd Court of Appeals, plus another $10,000 if he turns to the Texas Supreme Court.

See here, here, and here for the background. Bell is considering an appeal and has until next month to ask for a retrial on the legal fees issue. Judge Dietz is retiring at the end of the year, though, so a new trial would be in front of a new judge. Can’t say I envy him having this hang over his expected Mayoral campaign for next year. Hope he has better luck if there is a next time.

Mayoral fundraising 2015

Yeah, I know, another post about the 2015 election. I sure am doing a lousy job of not thinking about that just yet, but this raises an interesting point.

Chris Bell

Likely mayoral candidate Chris Bell is asking the city of Houston to reconsider its interpretation of an ordinance that would give Sylvester Turner a major fundraising advantage when he runs for mayor next year.

Bell’s law partner, Geoff Berg, sent City Attorney David Feldman a letter last week arguing that Turner and potential candidate Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia should not be able to raise money for their officeholder accounts and then transfer most of the funds to their mayoral accounts at the start of the race. As detailed in the Chronicle last month, Turner has raised money for his unopposed state legislative race this fall and has plans to eventually transfer the first $5,000 of each donation this winter. That is the limit for individual donations in a city election.

Feldman has signed off on Turner’s plan, but many campaign finance experts do not share his interpretation, instead arguing that candidates should merely be able to make a single $10,000 donation to the mayoral bid from their officeholder account. That is how much an entity like a PAC is allowed to donate under the city’s ordinance.

Bell, like other potential candidates who do not hold non-city offices, is prohibited from raising any money for a mayor’s race until Feb. 1. Berg argues in his letter that this unequal footing is ultimately unfair.

“The Ordinance simply cannot reasonably be read to mean anything other than what it says: the maximum amount which may be transferred from non-city campaign accounts is $10,000,” Berg wrote. “The blackout period was not intended to be a fundraising bonanza for officeholders at the expense of citizens who may wish to get involved in public service.”

The letter from Berg is at the link above. It should be noted that one reason Turner is raising money now is because come January, when the Legislature is in session, he’ll be restricted from doing so by the rules of that body. At least, he’ll be barred from raising money for his State Rep account; I’m actually not sure what the rules would be for him to raise money for a different campaign. It’s probably a can of worms he doesn’t want to have to deal with. Be that as it may, I tend to agree with Texpatriate that a better solution might be to let Bell and the teeming mob of other Mayoral wannabes do their own fundraising now as well. If nothing else, it would help sort out the real candidates from the candidates-only-in-speculative-articles-about-potential-candidates pretty quickly. That would require Council to revisit its 2005 campaign finance reform ordinance, which I feel quite confident saying ain’t gonna happen. I don’t see a compromise that’s likely to be satisfactory to all parties here, so I suspect this issue is going to be decided by a judge. Isn’t that always a great way to kick off a campaign season? Campos has more.

Appeals court rules against KSP

From last week, from the inbox via the Texas Democratic Party:

(Yesterday), the Texas Democratic Party prevailed in King Street Patriots v. Texas Democratic Party, when the Texas Court of Appeals for the Third District confirmed a lower court decision to uphold provisions of Texas campaign finance law. [Campaign Legal Center, 10/8/2014]

The Texas Democratic Party’s suit alleged that the King Street Patriots had made in-kind contributions to the Republican Party of Texas. These donations would have been a violation of the restrictions on corporate political contributions. They also failed to register as a “political committee” and comply with Texas Disclosure Law. In response, the King Street Patriots filed a counterclaim that challenged the constitutionality of parts of Texas’ campaign finance laws. [Houston Chronicle, 3/28/2012]

PDiddie was on this a couple of days ago. I was waiting to see if any mainstream news outlets would pick up on it, but so far it’s just the Quorum Report. The Chron story from 2012 in the TDP press release has a decent summary of the suit, and you can find a bit more on what led to it here and in Hair Balls. I’m sure this will go to the state Supreme Court, and who knows, maybe to the federal courts if they lose there, but for now, this is a nice little bit of good news, almost as good on a smaller scale as the voter ID ruling.

Chartering

There will be more than just the Mayor’s race going on in 2015.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston is guaranteed a frantic 2015 political season with an open mayor’s race on the ballot, but it could get busier still with growing talk of placing the city charter before voters for possible changes to term limits, the city revenue cap and other reforms.

Whether any of the proposed amendments goes to a vote next May or alongside the mayoral contest next November, the state constitution requires a two-year gap between charter changes, so all reforms would need to be voted on at once.

The question, given a difference of opinion between term-limited Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members, is what will make the ballot.

Parker has warned of widespread layoffs with next summer’s budget unless the decade-old, voter-imposed revenue cap is altered or scrapped, but she may prefer a November vote to avoid the measure being torpedoed by the hard-core right in a low-turnout May election. Even at that, she has not guaranteed a vote on the issue.

The mayor also has pledged to let voters consider a change in term limits – likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms – but support evaporated on City Council when that idea last was discussed in 2012.

Some council members, meanwhile, are pushing for broader reforms, including a proposal to let six members team up to place items on the council agenda for a vote; only the mayor can do so today, though three council members can call a special meeting.

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who long has argued for charter reform, is pushing that idea, which he says will enable council to better address small, neighborhood issues.

All that is in addition to the possibility of a referendum to repeal the Equal Rights Ordinance, depending on how things go in court. All forty-seven Mayoral candidates (or is it fifty-eight, I’ve lost count) will need to deal with these issues whether they want to or not.

I know, I’m still not ready to start talking about 2015 yet, so let me keep this brief.

1. I support any and all efforts to repeal the stupid revenue cap. I will not vote for any Mayoral candidate that is not on board with repealing the revenue cap.

2. My preference for term limits is to abolish them. Given that that isn’t going to happen, I would greatly prefer extending them to allow more two-year terms – six seems like a reasonable number to me – over any proposal that includes changing the length of the term in office to four years. To me, the ability to quickly correct a mistake like Helena Brown outweighs any purported downside of making people begin campaigning for re-election so soon. If the real complaint here is that nobody likes having to raise money for their campaigns – a complaint with which I sympathize – then let me propose a system of public financing for campaigns, which not only would alleviate the dialing-for-dollars drudgery, it would also address the original justification for term limits. I call that a win-win.

3. I currently have no opinion about CM Bradford’s proposal. I will be interested to hear what the seventy-three Mayoral candidates have to say about it.

Abbott claims Davis’ book tour constitutes an illegal campaign contribution

I guess he has to do something to distract from what’s actually in Sen. Davis’ book.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Republican gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott asked the Texas Ethics Commission on Monday to rule whether opponent Wendy Davis’ book deal and tour crosses the line on illegal corporate campaign contribution because it is tied to her ongoing campaign.

Davis’ campaign immediately labeled the filing a “frivolous stunt.”

In a three-page letter requesting an advisory opinion, Abbott campaign manager Wayne Hamilton asked whether a book tour paid for and promoted by a corporation constitute in-kind political contributions. Under state law, corporate contributions to a campaign are illegal.

[…]

“Because of the proximity of the book’s publishing and the election, the candidate will be using political funds on voter contact at the same time the publisher is using corporate funds to promote the book,” reads the letter, insisting that political observers “seem to agree that the promotion of the book essentially equals promotion of the candidate’s candidacy.”

The letter also seeks an opinion on how royalties from a book should be reported. Davis earlier made public her tax returns from last year that show she received a $132,000 advance from the book, with $100,000 in expenses.

The release of the book comes just eight weeks before the November general election, where polls show Abbott still holds a lead.

Ethics Commission officials have said they do not comment on opinion requests. But Executive Director Natalia Luna Ashley said that unless the questions have been previously answered, or the law is clear on an issue, an answer could take several months.

“It depends on the complexity,” she said.

Davis’ campaign spokesman Zac Petkanas said the campaign was “very careful to follow every legal guideline.

“This frivolous stunt by the Abbott campaign is the clearest sign yet how worried they are about the power of Wendy’s story,” he said.

This may be the first time in history that a Republican politician in Texas has been concerned about the effect of corporate money in an election. Perhaps Greg Abbott should ask Michael Quinn Sullivan or Tom DeLay what they think about this. I seriously doubt it will amount to anything, but if it does we won’t hear about it till after the election anyway.

More about TPJ

The Chron profiles Texans for Public Justice, the group that filed the complaint that led to Rick Perry’s indictments.

[Craig] McDonald’s Texans for Public Justice, which operates out of a small office west of the University of Texas-Austin campus and currently has less than $1,000 in the bank, is known as the state’s preeminent group for analyzing campaign donations, building lobbyist databases and filing ethical complaints. It is at least partially responsible for the downfalls of former state Rep. Gabi Canales, former state Board of Education member Rene Nuñez and, most notably, former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The only thing unusual about the two-page Perry complaint, McDonald said, was how long it took him and longtime colleague Andrew Wheat to put it together: just two days.

That, and the reaction.

Since the indictment was handed up Aug. 15, Texans for Public Justice has received dozens of interview requests and hundreds of expletive-filled letters, calls and emails, 10 times what followed DeLay’s 2005 indictment, McDonald said.

The group has played no role in the case since filing the complaint, but it nonetheless has become a part of the story as Perry has waged an aggressive campaign to cast the indictment as politically motivated.

[…]

Most of the group’s most high-profile targets have been Republicans, including DeLay, Perry and Ken Paxton, the current GOP nominee for attorney general, who last month became the subject of a TPJ complaint over his failure to register as an investment adviser as required by law.

Texans for Public Justice has gone after Democrats too.

One of the group’s earliest efforts targeted Canales, a Corpus Christi Democrat, for allegedly selling her power as a legislator to delay lawsuits. Canales lost her 2004 re-election bid, and the Legislature passed a law requiring all members to disclose when they used legislative continuances during legal proceedings.

Two other Democrats, Nuñez and fellow state Board of Education member Rick Agosto, were targeted in 2009 for not reporting gifts from a firm with business before the board. Nuñez was fined and lost his re-election bid.

National campaign-finance watchdog Ellen Miller said the group likely would target more Democrats if there were more of them in power.

“Texans for Public Justice has a national prominence and recognition for their very active state-based work around issues having to do with money, power and politics,” said Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which donated $1,200 to the Texas group in 2012.

So there you have it. Elect more Democrats, including some statewide, and you’ll see more of them get into trouble. It’s a lot harder to abuse power when you don’t have it.

Anyway. This story is a lot like the Trib story from last week, and undoubtedly like the others that have been written as well. I hope that in addition to all the attention they’re getting, a few people have also made contributions to TPJ so they can keep doing what they’re doing. If you want to be one of those people, see below the fold for the text of a fundraising email they sent out, with a donation link included. Someone has to do what TPJ does, and they’ve shown they’re pretty good at it.

(more…)

Shine a light on dark money

I totally favor this.

BagOfMoney

Secret campaign donors in Texas may soon be forced out of the shadows.

The Texas Ethics Commission, already fighting a conservative group in court over whether it can regulate dark money disclosure, appears poised to approve a proposal aimed at requiring some politically active nonprofits to start revealing their anonymous donors.

The eight-member commission rolled out a draft proposal Thursday, signaling how the state campaign finance regulator plans to move forward on tackling the growing concern over secret campaign spending in Texas elections.

Under the draft regulation, the commission would require a nonprofit to start disclosing donors if 25 percent or more of the group’s expenditures can be classified as politically motivated. It also would require disclosure if political contributions account for more than 25 percent of the group’s total contributions in a calendar year.

“We’re tying to figure out how we get to the public information about who is contributing to candidates,” said commission Chairman Jim Clancy, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Separately, the commission on Thursday clarified that dark money groups may spend up to 20 percent of their revenue on politics without having to disclose donors.

The commission referred to it as a safe harbor, of sorts, in an opinion that represents one of the first concrete pieces of guidance provided to campaign finance lawyers since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums on electioneering.

As I’m sure you know, I am all in favor of more disclosure. I honestly don’t understand the argument against it, though I’m aware that the courts don’t necessarily share my view. The usual anti-transparency suspects are kicking up the usual fuss and threatening to take this to court, where they unfortunately will have a good chance of prevailing. It’s still the right thing to do, and who knows? Maybe some day we’ll have better judges. Texas Politics has more.

Who watches the fox while he guards the henhouse?

The Railroad Commission needs an ethics upgrade.

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

The race for Texas railroad commissioner has revived — at least in the short term — debate around a series of thwarted legislative proposals to overhaul the state’s curiously named oil and gas agency.

Calling the Railroad Commission too heavily influenced by the industry it regulates, Steve Brown, a Democrat, last week unveiled a slate of proposals aimed at reworking its image — measures first proposed by a panel of state lawmakers in 2013. The proposals include changing the commission’s name, shortening the period in which commissioners can fundraise, barring commissioners from accepting contributions from parties with business before the commission, expanding its recusal policy and requiring commissioners to resign before running for another office.

“The agency is broken itself, and so, you know, because of that, there are so many people in the community — out in the state of Texas — who just don’t trust the process,” Brown, the former chairman of the Fort Bend Democrats, said in an interview.

The move revealed stark differences between the campaign priorities of Brown and Ryan Sitton, his Republican opponent and the clear front-runner in the race, as they vie for an office that toes a line between industry champion and watchdog.

Sitton’s campaign criticized Brown’s announcement but did not directly weigh in on the bulk of the proposals, saying Sitton’s attention is focused on other issues. “We’re focused on making sure that Ryan is communicating his message, not in responding to ideas from his opponent,” said Jared Craighead, a spokesman for Sitton. Sitton is an oil and gas engineer who touts his industry expertise in his campaign credentials.

Which is to say, the status quo suits him just fine.

Brown’s proposals are the word-for-word recommendations of the 2012-13 Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, the legislative body that periodically reviews how state agencies operate. Lawmakers last session debated but failed to pass several pieces of legislation incorporating the recommendations. The Railroad Commission opposed the overhaul, arguing that commissioners should not be subject to stricter fundraising standards than other statewide officials and that the agency’s current ethics policies were plenty robust.

Brown called it a “vast mistake that the Legislature has been unable to pass these reforms.”

But Craighead panned Brown’s proposal as unoriginal. “I think to cut and paste the Sunset review commission’s work shows a lack of thought, and certainly, those are not the types of things that Ryan is talking about,” he said. He added that Sitton considers ethics and transparency issues important.

Again, the status quo suits Ryan Sitton just fine. Look, there’s a reason why the RRC gets singled out for special ethics rules. For one thing, Commissioners serve six-year terms with no resign-to-run requirement, which means they all get one guaranteed shot at another office without having to step down first. More to the point, Commissioners and Commission candidates, much like judges and judicial candidates, tend to draw financial support exclusively from the parties that have business before them. For judges that means lawyers, and for Railroad Commissioners that means the energy industry. In both cases, it creates at least the appearance of impropriety. And in both cases, the answer is campaign finance reform. I’ve been arguing for public financing of judicial races, which is a long enough shot on its own and even less likely here. The Sunset recommendation of limiting the dates for contributions doesn’t really solve the impropriety issue but at least provides a bit of separation, and it has a chance of passing the Legislature. I’ll take what I can get. If you want more of the same old same old, Ryan Sitton’s your man. If you want a change, vote for Steve Brown.

Another entry for the judicial election files

Get Wallace Jefferson on the phone for me, will ya?

Three justices on the Tennessee Supreme Court are facing an election-year attack, not for any particular decision they have authored or even for any unpopular opinion they have espoused. No, in an ugly campaign in Tennessee that appears to be getting ever uglier, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who is also the state’s lieutenant governor, is attempting to oust three state Supreme Court justices in their Aug. 7 retention elections, chiefly for the judicial outrage of having been appointed to the high court by a Democrat. Under Tennessee law, the governor appoints Supreme Court justices, and then they come up for retention elections every eight years thereafter. This is a pretty common set-up in states that elect their justices.

Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed justices Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark, and Sharon Lee to the high court. They are all up for retention in two months and Ramsey, seemingly unable to get past the first few entries in the “Stock Campaign Insults” dictionary, has mounted a statewide assault targeting the three as “soft on crime” and “anti-business.” As the Shreveport Times notes, Ramsey is going after the three jurists “despite the fact that the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission that Ramsey helped to appoint found them qualified to retain their posts.” Ramsey is a member of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has a history of targeting judicial races across the country and calls the Tennessee race “high on our radar.”

Ramsey is arguing that he clairvoyantly knows that the Supreme Court as constituted will overturn limits on payouts in medical malpractice and other civil lawsuits that ensure “you’re not going to be punished by some jury that gives you some exorbitant return on the lawsuit.” And he’s also grumpy that in 2011 the Supreme Court vacated the death sentence of murderer Leonard Edward Smith because of ineffective counsel. (Smith ultimately got a life sentence in exchange for the death penalty being dropped.) But beyond the usual bellyaching about the suckiness of some court decisions with which he personally disagrees—or hopes to disagree with someday—there’s all sorts of speculation in the Tennessee press about what Ramsay is really attempting to achieve with this campaign. If even one of the incumbents loses, it will shift the balance of the court to a majority-Republican institution. The Shreveport Times posits that since the state Supreme Court justices pick the state attorney general, the purge may be an effort to create a “Republican” majority on the five-justice court to ensure that there is a newer, more Republican, attorney general. Ramsey pretty much just up and said so at the state GOP’s annual fundraiser in Nashville last week: “Folks, it’s time that we had a Republican attorney general in the state of Tennessee.”

Or it may not even be that targeted. As the editors suggest, “since the Republican Party now has supermajorities in both legislative houses and holds the governor’s office, perhaps the campaign only is an effort to complete the trifecta with the addition of the judicial branch.”

Sam Venable, a columnist at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, pointed out last week that purging the entire state of all those with a “D” behind their name—or anyone seated by anyone with a “D” behind his or her name—“is completely understandable, of course. It’s what politicians do. It’s how they live, breathe and have their being.” And of course this is true. Smearing judges who can’t, or won’t, smear back is politics pure and simple. The problem for the justice system is that the only solution to a bad guy with a well-financed attack campaign is to construct a good guy with a well-financed ad campaign. After all, the enduring lesson of the Iowa Supreme Court meltdown of 2010 is that dignified silence doesn’t win elections. And so the Tennessee Bar Association is, in an admirably bipartisan fashion, getting itself organized to finance and promote a counterinitiative to keep the judicial seats as judiciously as possible. That this is bipartisan is good. That it is happening at all (lawyers raising money for the judges before whom they will appear) is a disaster.

Note that Tennessee is using the appointment-with-retention-election system for picking judges, which is often cited as a nice, safe way to get partisan politics out of the judicial selection process. Until some people decide they don’t like the judges that the governor of the other party selected, so they’re going to work to defeat them so that the governor of their preferred political party can name replacements. Note that since these are retention elections, these judges don’t have opponents, so they technically exist outside the partisan voting process, and definitely aren’t affected by straight-ticket voting. And yet they’re affected by the partisan voting process anyway, because the people who are the most interested in the outcome of these elections are smart enough to know who plays for which team. The lack of a label on the actual ballot does not deter them. Which is what I’ve been saying all along.

I keep harping on this issue because there continue to be so many examples of why the “solutions” that so many people like to propose to “fix” the judicial selection process don’t actually work they way their advocates claim they would. The root of all problems in the judicial election process is the influence of money in judicial elections. You have to address that problem if you want to have any chance at success. I can’t see any path to a solution for judicial elections that doesn’t involve strictly limiting campaign contributions and/or public financing of judicial elections. As we currently live in a Citizens United world, that will probably require a Constitutional amendment allowing for such limits on campaign spending first. Hey, I never said this was going to be easy. The alternate path is an appointment-only system for all judicial positions, which needless to say has its own hurdles to overcome – there are thousands of judgeships in Texas, so just having a system that can scale to such a degree is daunting, and of course there’s politics aplenty any time one person gets to hand out goodies like these. My preferred approach is to overhaul the campaign finance system first, since that would also help make for better non-judicial elections, and then deal with whatever problems remain. That’s a journey of a thousand miles, and the sooner we take that first step without going down needless detours, the better.

FEC approves Bitcoin for campaign contributions

It’s the right call.

The Federal Election Commission on Thursday voted to allow political committees to accept Bitcoin donations and outlined the ways that the virtual currency can be used by federally regulated campaigns.

Responding to a request from a political action committee, the commissioners unanimously approved an advisory opinion that defined Bitcoins, which allows for online transactions without going through a bank or other third party, as “money or anything of value” — in essence, cash or an in-kind contribution.

They also imposed some restrictions, ruling that Bitcoin donations will be capped at a cash equivalent of $100 per person per cycle, with the value determined at the time of the donation, and that a complete accounting of name, address and employer must accompany the donation.

Committees can liquidate a Bitcoin contribution immediately, or they can choose to keep it as an investment, in the same way they do with stocks and bonds. Since the value of the virtual currency can fluctuate suddenly, the opportunity for a windfall is real, but is growing rarer as it stabilizes.

The opinion also allows committees to buy Bitcoins on the open market, but prohibits them from using the coins to pay for goods or services. They must be liquidated into United States currency before being spent.

See here for the background, and here for the FEC opinion. I don’t see this as being a big deal – I still think Bitcoin is a lot of sound and fury – but I see no reason not to treat Bitcoin as something of value that can be given to and used by a PAC. Better to allow it and regulate it than to ignore it and hope it goes away.

The money is the problem

A story of interest from North Carolina.

BagOfMoney

The ad first appeared on television the Friday before last, a black-and-white spot charging that Justice Robin Hudson coddled child molesters and “sided with the predators” in a North Carolina Supreme Court dissent. It has run constantly since.

As notable as the ad’s content and frequency, though, is its source. It was created and aired not by one of Justice Hudson’s two opponents in Tuesday’s primary election, but by a group that had just received $650,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington, which pools donations from corporations and individuals to promote conservatives in state politics and is now broadening its scope to target judicial races.

The sums have been unusual for such elections. The primary race for Justice Hudson’s Supreme Court seat alone has drawn more than $1 million — the bulk of it by independent groups including the Republican committee and an arm of the state Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $250,000 to promote both of her opponents with money from companies including Reynolds American, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Koch Industries.

[…]

Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C., which is tracking spending and television ads, said, “The sitting justice could be primaried out because of this avalanche of independent spending on behalf of the two conservative candidates.”

Justice Hudson has raised a few hundred thousand dollars and spent $86,000 fielding a defensive ad. She has been spending long days attending breakfasts and barbecue benefits across the state’s 100 counties, seeking to build her name recognition and fire up supporters to vote in a primary where they may not see much at stake.

[…]

Judges on higher courts are elected rather than appointed in 22 states, and in 16 more they must face retention elections at some point after their selection, according to Justice at Stake, an advocacy group in Washington. Corporations and political parties — and trial lawyers and unions — seek ideologically compatible state judges, legal experts say, because their rulings can affect redistricting and laws on such key issues as liability, medical malpractice and workers’ compensation.

The growing influx of interest group spending is transforming judicial elections and raising concerns about conflicts of interest. In 2012, $30 million was spent nationwide on television advertising for state court races, often involving attack ads, according to a report last fall by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“Judicial races are getting swamped in this tidal wave of political money,” said Bert Brandenburg, a former Justice Department official who is the executive director of Justice at Stake. The Republican state committee has already used North Carolina as a test case. In 2012, it financed ads extolling a sitting Supreme Court justice, Paul Newby, known to be a Republican, to help him beat back a challenge from Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, an appeals court judge and grandson of former Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., who died in 1985.

[…]

The explosion in outside funding is the latest development in a winding path for North Carolina’s judicial elections. In 2002, in an effort to curb spending and level the playing field, North Carolina, then under Democratic control, established public financing for races. It also said the races must be nonpartisan.

Emphasis mine. Did you hear that, Wallace Jefferson? This is happening in a state that already has non-partisan judicial elections. I’ve said all along that removing party labels from judicial candidates will do nothing to curb the influence of outside groups, and here’s the proof. North Carolina had a good idea, but recent Supreme Court decisions that have eviscerated campaign finance laws have rendered that idea moot. Until we do something about that, we’re not even tinkering around the edges. Link via Ed Kilgore.

As it happens, Judge Hudson made the cut in her primary and will be on the ballot in November, where I’m sure she’ll continue to face this kind of barrage. TheChron editorial board, in an otherwise laudable piece about the need for greater accountability among judges, also lamented the partisan election process for judges and pushed for an appointment-with-retention-elections system. Putting aside the fact that retention elections would have the same problems with big money that our current system has, you still have to design an appointment system that isn’t inherently political and also has the capacity to handle the thousand-plus elected judicial offices in Texas. As I keep saying every time this subject comes up, I don’t necessarily favor the system we now have. It has plenty of warts and weaknesses, no doubt about it. But all the would-be reformers I come across never mention the money issue, and they almost never discuss the pros and cons of their preferred alternative as well as the ones they don’t prefer. I’d be a lot more open to their suggestions if I felt like they they were honestly accounting for their positions instead of just dumping on the status quo. Convince me it’s a change for the better and not just a change for the sake of change. The system we have now may not be good, but that doesn’t mean that the alternatives would be an improvement.

Wallace Jefferson is still going on about judicial elections

In an interview in The Atlantic, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson rides his favorite hobbyhorse of partisan judicial elections.

Hon. Wallace Jefferson

I’ve been talking about this for a long time. And I am not the first one. Republican or Democrat Chief Justices for the last 30 or 40 years have been calling on the legislature to change the way judges come to the bench in Texas. It is a broken system. We shouldn’t have partisan elections. I do not like the concept of a Republican or Democratic judge. I think fundraising undermines the confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system. So I would change it completely if I were king.

The sad reality, given the system that we have, is that if a judge wants to remain on the bench they have to find a way to reach the voters. And the only way to do that in Texas is in the media market. If you are running a statewide campaign, there are about 26 million people in Texas. You have Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, and all are major media markets. Even to mail campaign literature, you’ve got to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I don’t defend the system. I would want to change it.

[…]

In your free time one day, take a look at the ballot in Harris County—that’s Houston—in a presidential year. If you look at that ballot, there will be several pages of judges who are standing for election, from the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals … There are district court judges, county court judges, probate judges, municipal court judges. In that one year in Harris County, there are probably 60 or 70 judges on that ballot. The voters have no clue about the experience or background of these candidates for office, and so what happens in Texas is that voters increasingly vote based upon partisan affiliation.

And we have the ability to straight-ticket vote here and so, in 2008, when I was on the ballot, it was McCain versus Obama, and Republicans in Texas by a large margin voted for McCain but they voted straight-ticket. So they voted McCain and every single Republican down the ballot. And in Harris County that year, Obama was extraordinarily popular so they voted for Obama and every Democrat down the ballot. I won [my] election easily, [but] in Houston there was almost a complete sweep of Republican judges — they were replaced by Democrats.

That makes no sense. These votes are not based upon the merits of the judge but on partisan affiliation and if its not party affiliation it’s the sound of your name. I said that almost all the Republican judges in Harris County lost—well, there were three exceptions. And in each of those cases, the Democratic candidate had an ethnic-sounding name. That’s no way to differentiate among candidates. And if it’s not partisan affiliation or the sound of your name, it’s how much money you can raise—which, as I said, undermines confidence in impartial justice.

We’ve discussed this before. I’m just going to note the following tidbit I learned from querying the Contributor records at the Texas Ethics Commission:

Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 05/21/2001
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 8,015.00, 02/20/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 06/27/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/31/2005
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 03/05/2007
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 7,500.00, 06/27/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 10/14/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/14/2008

When Wallace Jefferson is ready to talk about how judicial elections are financed, then I’ll be ready to take him seriously. Until then, as far as I’m concerned none of his proposals have any chance of actually achieving the reforms he says he wants.

Revisiting George Fleming

Lisa Falkenberg catches up with an old friend.

George Fleming

Trial lawyer George Fleming was calm and gracious when he took questions back in 2012, insisting that his bankrolling of a respected judge’s no-name opponent had nothing to do with his own displeasure with that particular jurist.

“No, no,” Fleming assured my colleague Patti Kilday Hart. “The way I show displeasure (with a judge) is I appeal his rulings.”

Fleming did appeal Judge Steven Kirkland’s unfavorable ruling that could have cost his firm as much as $13 million.

Then the wealthy lawyer of Fen-Phen-fighting fame became the only financial backer of the judge’s Democratic primary opponent, contributing individually and through his political action committee $35,000.

The opponent, now state district Judge Elaine H. Palmer, ran an ugly, bruising campaign with plenty of below-the-belt jabs at Kirkland. He was ousted and is now a Houston assistant city attorney and communications law lecturer at the University of Houston.

Kirkland is back campaigning again this year, trying for another bench: the 113th District Court. And Fleming is back as well, as the sole contributor to Kirkland’s new opponent, Lori C. Gray.

This time, when Fleming took my questions on his contributions, he was practically seething at the media criticism his involvement has drawn. And, this time, he acknowledged his motivations, saying the “personal experience” in Kirkland’s court, which led to years of unnecessary appeals, has driven him to keep the judge off the bench.

Elaine Palmer actually had multiple donors in 2012, though Fleming was one of the bigger ones, and was likely the driving force behind the others who donated to her. Kirkland’s 2014 opponent, Lori Gray, reported $35K on her January filing, all of which came from Fleming and his PAC. I’m sorry Fleming has his undies in a twist about the attention he’s getting, but what did he expect would happen?

To Gray’s credit, she hasn’t engaged in the nasty, misleading mudslinging that marked Palmer’s campaign. Gray, a lawyer for 25 years who won her 2010 primary for judge, says she respects Kirkland and wants to focus on the issues, such as cutting down litigation costs.

But she makes no apologies for accepting Fleming’s money, which she says could never sway or influence her. Fleming isn’t her only supporter, she says, noting she’s got plenty of volunteers giving time and energy, if not money.

“I am not for sale,” Gray said. “I am no slave. I am a private attorney who has a contributor, for whatever reason he chose to support my campaign, I didn’t ask him. And it is not my business.”

I don’t know Lori Gray. She does now have a campaign webpage, but any campaign activity she’s been engaged in has been invisible to me. She didn’t return my judicial Q&A, though she did submit one to Texpatriate. I don’t know why she chose to run for this court, but her explanation strikes me as just a wee bit naive. Gray ran for County Criminal Court #10 in 2010 in a contested primary, winning a close race (page 21) in which she overcame being listed second on the ballot, which was a kiss of death for most other candidates that year. Why she chose to run for this particular Civil District court, the only Civil District court that features a contested Democratic primary and the one in which you have to know George Fleming would get involved, when there were several County Criminal courts lacking a Democratic candidate – County Civil Court At Law #4 also has no Dem running – is a question only she can answer. Maybe she thought this court was the best fit for her talents, maybe she thought it was her best shot to win even with the contested primary, maybe she just thought Steve Kirkland is a lousy candidate. All of these would be valid reasons, but to profess ignorance of Fleming and his motives is not believable. Again, what did she think would happen? Whatever the result of this race, it will serve as another example of what people hate about our partisan judicial election system. I’ve yet to be convinced that any of the (mostly half-baked) alternatives to it are any better, but this adds fuel to the idea that anything else would be better.

Time to talk term limits again

The subject keeps coming up, though it never seems to get anywhere.

calvin-on-term-limits-for-dads

As the inauguration of Houston’s elected leaders begins Thursday morning, supporters and spectators gathered at the Wortham Center downtown will see six new City Council members walk across the stage.

Observers at the ceremony two years ago saw seven new members sworn in, and those present two years before that saw five new faces cross the stage. That’s 18 position turnovers in four years around a horseshoe that seats 17, including the mayor, as Councilman C.O. Bradford pointed out at the council’s final meeting of the year two weeks ago.

With this churn in mind, Mayor Annise Parker, Bradford and others are calling for changes to the city’s term limits structure, which allows three two-year terms for the mayor, city controller and council members.

“That’s simply too frequent. When I came to council, there were council members in the process of leaving … and they were just well-seasoned, they were just at the point where they were really ready to dig in and serve the city,” said Bradford, who is starting his third and final term. “As we go forward in efforts to move our city forward, look at 18 turnovers in a four-year period and look at the challenge that presents.”

Parker, herself term-limited out of office at the end of 2016, said she will ask council to present voters with a shift to two four-year terms, adding that any proposal will not apply to her.

We all know how I feel about term limits, right? OK, with that out of the way, let me say that I don’t care for four-year terms on Council. For those of you who think Council will be a better place minus Helena Brown and/or Andrew Burks, they would both be beginning the second half of their first term if we had four-year terms in place now. I think having two year terms helps keep Council members accountable, and better enables us to correct mistakes in a timely fashion as needed. I understand that many Council members dislike having to transition into campaign mode so soon after being elected, and I get that the grind of fundraising sucks. That’s why I believe a better solution to address these issues is changing the nature of our system of financing campaigns. To my mind, if we can level the playing field between incumbents and challengers, we can better address the problem that term limits was supposed to solve. I’m very open to the idea of publicly financing campaigns, at least at the municipal level to begin with. There are big problems to solve in such a system, how to finance it and how to regulate private contributions in a constitutional way being the two main ones, but I see it as a worthwhile goal that actually has a chance of solving the underlying problem. You could take the approach that no one should be allowed to run for re-election, but that still doesn’t address the question of how campaigns are financed, and I personally see value in giving good public servants a chance to keep doing what they’re good at doing. All I ask about the forthcoming debate over our current and highly sub-optimal term limits system is that we start by pledging to review the whole thing and to consider options that have been left out of previous discussions. We’ll see if this effort makes it any farther than the last one did.

Bell lawsuit award against RGA tossed by appeals court

Some old history got raked up recently.

Chris Bell

An attorney for failed 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell is considering appealing a state appeals court’s decision to throw out a $2 million award to Bell in a lawsuit where Bell contended a national Republican organization violated state laws with $1 million in campaign donations to Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

The 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin tossed the August 2010 judgment by a Travis County judge who ruled in Bell’s favor, agreeing instead with arguments from the defendant, the Republican Governors Association, that out-of-state organizations can’t be penalized for disclosure violations and aren’t required to designate a state treasurer.

Bell’s lawyer, Buck Wood, told the Austin American-Statesman [last] Friday he may ask the appeals court to reconsider its ruling or take the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

“As soon as everyone figures out what I already know, then there won’t be any reporting (of political contributions),” Wood said. “There will be lots of money thrown into Texas, and you won’t have any idea where it’s coming from.”

[…]

The Republican governor’s group received money from Houston developer Bob Perry, the nation’s largest individual donor during the 2006 election cycle, and Bell’s lawsuit accused the governor of trying to hide the donation. The governor is not related to the developer.

Bell argued the money was illegally funneled through the organization in the final days of the 2006 campaign.

See here for the background. As William Faulkner once said, past elections are never dead, they’re not even past. My first reaction when I heard this was “Wait, wasn’t there a settlement in that lawsuit?” No, there was a settlement in Bell’s separate lawsuit against Rick Perry over the same thing; see here and here for background on that. I wonder if Perry is kicking himself now for having settled. In any event, I don’t know why we have rules if they never get enforced. Of course, the way things are going at the federal level, we might not have any rules soon enough.

More leftover campaign cash

The Chron writes about a subject I’ve covered before.

BagOfMoney

Former Rep. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs of Houston used leftover campaign funds to buy a life membership in the National Rifle Association. Former Rep. Martin Frost of Dallas paid a $6,000 Federal Election Commission fine. Former Rep. Tom DeLay of Sugar Land hired a media consultant. And former Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, a Republican lawmaker-turned-lobbyist, showered 35 candidates – including two prominent Democrats – with campaign donations.

Over the past two decades, retired members of the Texas congressional delegation have spent more than a million dollars they had raised for their House and Senate campaigns on expenses incurred after they left office, a Houston Chronicle review of Federal Election Commission records has found. For some of the ex-lawmakers, the expenses continued for years after they last held office in Washington.

The post-congressional spending ranged from small thank-you trinkets for supporters to large expenditures on mailing lists, computer equipment, political consultant fees and donations to other politicians that have allowed some ex-lawmakers to maintain perpetual political operations. Two former lawmakers made payments to family members.

All of the retirement spending was made possible by donors who contributed to the Texas lawmakers’ campaigns while they were holding office. A review of FEC reports indicates that none of the former legislators refunded any funds to their former donors after leaving office.

The existence of these accounts – used by 71 percent of Texas lawmakers who left office over the past two decades – may come as a surprise to many of their constituents. But it’s all perfectly legal – as long as the former officeholders use the money for political or charitable causes.

“You can use campaign funds for any lawful purpose – except they can’t be converted to personal use,” said Michael Toner, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

[…]

Campaign watchdogs say the current law allows former officeholders too much latitude in deciding how to use leftover money.

“There’s actually quite a lot of room for lawmakers to finagle their own campaign budgets,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen.

Holman said the FEC definition of prohibited “personal use” is too narrow and allows former members to indirectly use their funds to benefit family members or themselves by funneling money into organizations they manage or control.

While the Chron story is about former federal officeholders, this is an issue at the state level, too. I thought there was a state law that required all funds to be disbursed within a set period off time, but if that is the case I’ve never seen it enforced. If it were up to me, I’d mandate that any funds left unspent four years after the person’s last day in office would be put into a fund that helps the relevant enforcement agency do its thing. Seems only fitting to me.

[Jim] Turner has the longest-lasting campaign account. The former state legislator and congressman had amassed more than $1 million in campaign funds when he retired rather than face off against veteran Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis in a heavily Republican district. Eight years later, Turner has $990,000 remaining.

Turner said he has kept his campaign account active because he might run for office if “Texas becomes Democratic again.”

“I have always wanted to keep the option open and may want to run for a statewide office,” he said. “I was sidelined by redistricting, but I’ve always enjoyed public service.”

Turner’s last election was in 2002. I don’t care for his strategy of waiting till Texas is sufficiently blue in 2018 or 2022 to maybe use all that money to take another shot at public office. I hope the Democratic primary voters in those years would look askance on someone who sat on a million bucks for 15 or 20 years just in case conditions became favorable for him again instead of using it to help other candidates and causes. My advice to Turner would be to either gut it up and run against Big John Cornyn in 2014 – a million bucks won’t get you that far in a Senate race, but it beats starting out with nothing – or just admit that your time has passed and donate the cash to Battleground Texas. But seriously, don’t keep sitting on it. It’s not doing anyone any good.

Perry vetoes “dark money” bill

Not a surprise.

BagOfMoney

Gov. Rick Perry has vetoed a divisive measure that would have forced some tax-exempt, politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors. That effectively kills the measure for this session; lawmakers stripped a similar amendment from an Ethics Commission reform bill on Friday.

In his veto statement — the first of the session — Perry said the bill “would have a chilling effect” on donors’ constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association.

“At a time when our federal government is assaulting the rights of Americans by using the tools of government to squelch dissent it is unconscionable to expose more Texans to the risk of such harassment, regardless of political, organizational or party affiliation,” he said.

House lawmakers passed Senate Bill 346, a “dark money” bill that would’ve applied to nonprofits falling under 501(c)(4) of the tax code, earlier this month. They did it in a hurry, leaving in a provision many of them disliked that exempted labor unions in an effort to deny the upper chamber its request to revisit senators’ original vote to pass it.

The measure has faced ardent opposition from far-right activists like Michael Quinn Sullivan, whose conservative group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility is a 501(c)(4). He has argued that SB 346 is an unconstitutional attempt to harass protected donors.

Supporters of the legislation “will subject to threats and intimidation donors to Tea Party groups, home-school organizations, right-to-life advocates and civil rights causes,” Sullivan wrote in an op-ed published in The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday.

See here for the background. Perry and Sullivan are of course shedding crocodile tears – people don’t intimidate Sullivan, people are intimidated by him and the millions of dollars he has at his disposal from anonymous donors. You can see from Noel Freeman’s comment in my earlier post that there were issues with this bill that would have caused problems for organizations that don’t cause the kind of trouble that Sullivan’s do, and perhaps because of that the veto is for the best. Let’s just be clear on the prevarication in Perry’s and Sullivan’s words, and let’s hope someone tries again with a better bill in the next session. The Observer and Texas Politics have more.

Money in judicial races isn’t about partisanship

Dan Patrick isn’t the only one seeking to change how we select judges in Texas.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

Freshman state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is an attorney who has been frustrated for years by this state’s hyper-political process for selecting judges (and the big money that flows into those races), and he was tempted to prescribe a specific remedy during his first legislative session.

Rodriguez is a political realist, however, and he knows that any attempt to reduce the partisanship in our political system will itself be perceived as a partisan act. So he took a different course.

Rodriguez filed legislation Thursday that would create a bipartisan interim committee to study all options for improving the selection of state appellate and district judges. The committee would consist of five senators and five representatives and present its recommendations to the Lege at the beginning of the 2015 legislative session.

“I had a little bit of heartburn over this (bill), because I’m not the kind of guy who likes to study the life out of things,” Rodriguez said. “But realistically, this had the best chance of passing, and it starts the dialogue.”

It’s a dialogue that definitely needs to happen. This state is one of only six that continues to elect its supreme court justices in partisan races, and partisan judicial races tend to attract the most fundraising money. Between 2000 and 2009, $211 million in contributions flooded into state supreme court races in the United States, a 150 percent jump from the previous decade, according to a 2012 report by the Center for American Progress.

This culture of big-money bench manipulation inevitably seeps into appeals- and district-court races, with individual candidates standing in for the competing interests of the progressive Texas Trial Lawyers Association and the conservative Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

Removing party labels from judicial races wouldn’t be a panacea, but it likely would reduce bundling by large-scale party donors and lift some of the pressure that Texas judges feel to follow the party line.

Once they’re elected, a retention-election system could keep judges accountable by allowing constituents to decide whether they can stay on the bench. It might also alleviate the all-too-real nightmare of grandstanding Texas district judges sentencing 18-year-old kids to eight years, with no chance of parole, for graffiti and pot possession charges.

“If justice is truly blind, then we have to figure out a more sublime way of selecting the referees in these matters,” Rodriguez says. “I wish I could tell you what the silver bullet is, but I’m hopeful with this bill we can have a good debate on it.”

Rep. Rodriguez’s bill is HB 2772. I appreciate that Rep. Rodriguez doesn’t claim to already have an answer, unlike some people, but I continue to not understand the fascination with non-partisan and retention elections. As I’ve said before, I don’t see how the money disappears if the partisan labels go away. Labels or no labels, the money will be there because the interest in the outcomes will be there. It’s true that TLR tends to fund Republicans and TTLA tends to fund Democrats, but that’s because each group’s interests tend to align with the parties in question. TLR pours plenty of money into Democratic races as well, as we saw in the recent SD06 special election, because they seek to maximize their influence. If Democrats start dominating statewide races like Republicans have been doing, I guarantee you TLR will be right there backing the candidates that they think will be the most amenable, or the least hostile, to their interests. It’s the way of the world. If you want to change that, you have to take the money out of these races, which is an impossible thing to do in a post-Citizens United world.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there is a way to truly blunt the influence of big campaign financiers that won’t run afoul of current law and precedent and which still allows the election of judges, if that’s what you want. I’m having a hard time seeing any path that doesn’t lead to an appointment system, if there is no change in campaign finance law. But maybe I’m wrong, and maybe Rep. Rodriguez’s study will come up with something that I’m not seeing. I doubt it, but it can’t hurt.

Straight ticket voting and judicial races elsewhere

You may be wondering, after reading my post about straight ticket voting and judicial races if the same thing is true in counties other than Harris. I got to wondering that myself, so I checked out the results from a dozen other counties for 2012.

County ST Advantage Contested Races Closest Win # Affected ================================================================== Dallas Dem 92,456 3 93,810 0 Tarrant GOP 66,682 0 N/A 0 Bexar Dem 24,711 12 11,209 2 Travis Dem 53,480 0 N/A 0 Collin GOP 72,239 0 N/A 0 Denton GOP 59,348 0 N/A 0 El Paso Dem 47,483 1 48,038 0 Fort Bend GOP 11,754 2 19,530 0 Galveston GOP 17,799 0 N/A 0 Hidalgo Dem 51,644 0 N/A 0 Williamson GOP 17,939 0 N/A 0 Jefferson Dem 11,646 1 17,546 0

I only looked at District and County Court races for this study. “ST Advantage” is the difference between the straight-ticket vote of the dominant party, which I’ve listed to its left, and the other party. For example, there were 92,456 more straight-ticket Democratic votes cast in Dallas County than there were straight-ticket Republican votes. “Contested races” is the number of judicial races in which there was a Democrat and a Republican. “Closest win” is the smallest margin of victory for the party with the straight-ticket advantage. Note that in Bexar County there was one victorious Republican judicial candidate. “# Affected” is the number of contested races in which the margin of the closest win is less than the straight-ticket advantage. In other words, that’s the number of races for which the straight-ticket margin was decisive. I didn’t count that one Bexar County race because that particular Republican was able to overcome the straight-ticket advantage, and thus wasn’t affected by it.

So, what we learn from broadening our search is that there’s a total of three races in which straight-ticket voting arguably affected the outcome of a judicial election. I say “arguably” because in order to believe this, you have to believe that sufficiently more of the winning party straight-ticket voters would have failed to vote in these races than the losing party’s straight-ticket voters, which is at best a questionable and unprovable proposition. But if you believe it, then in thirteen of the biggest counties in Texas, there are three fewer Republican judges than there would have been if Dan Patrick had his way. I should note that Paul Sadler carried El Paso and Hidlago by less than the straight-ticket margin, so there could at least theoretically have been some other examples if there had been contested races. This is not the same as thinking such races might have been competitive – these are deep blue counties, as Democratic as Collin is Republican, and as likely to elect a Republican as Collin is a Dem. The one true recruitment failure was in Jefferson County, where despite the straight-ticket advantage President Obama barely won a plurality, but one Democratic judge there drew no opponent.

Maybe you think this is a big deal, worthy of a high-profile bill and much fawning media coverage. I think it’s much ado about nothing, and would do nothing to improve the process of how we make judges. The thing that really stood out to me as I looked through this data is just how few contested judicial races there were. Outside of Bexar and Harris – not coincidentally, two of the more evenly-matched counties in the state – hardly any November judicial action. I didn’t check to see how many judicial races were settled in the primaries – sorry, I’m not that obsessed with this topic – but I do agree that primary party politics are not conducive to good judge-selection. Does that mean making judicial elections non-partisan is a good idea? Personally, I don’t think so. Houston city elections are officially non-partisan, but everyone knows who the Rs and the Ds are, and I daresay that’s how it would be in “non-partisan” judicial races. Besides, look at it this way: If I’m a District Court judge in, say, Collin or Travis County, and I have a November opponent, I don’t have to emphasize my partisan credentials. The “R” or “D” next to my name on the ballot will do that for me, and I’m free to talk about my experience and qualifications or whatever else I want to put on my mailers. But in a non-partisan race, my party affiliation is exactly what I need to emphasize, since my surest path to a win is to ensure that my fellow partisans know who’s who on the ballot. I’d expect that to happen even in balanced counties, because your team are your most reliable voters, and indifference to downballot races is at least as big a concern as the other guy’s team is. I don’t see a way around it.

Well, we could do away with judicial elections and go to an all-appointment system. This is first of all a philosophical question: Either you believe that judges should be elected by The People, or you believe they should be selected by a person or a committee. If you prefer the latter, then it’s primarily a matter of logistics. As I noted before, there are nearly 2000 non-municipal judges statewide, so just coming up with a system that can handle that big a workload is a big deal. I trust we can all agree that letting Rick Perry appoint judges, or even letting him appoint the appointers, is a bad idea. I’m sure there are workable ways of doing this, but I’ll leave the details to someone who buys into the idea. If you want to have a system of appointments with retention elections, I’ll just note again that all of the usual suspects that play in judicial races would still be free, and likely, to play in these elections as well. What, if anything, is the plan to deal with that?

Which brings me back to the point that I’ve been trying to make since the subject of partisan judicial races first came up in 2008 after Democrats first demonstrated the ability to win them in Harris County: The biggest problem as I see it is the influence of money on judicial races. That’s why I get so frustrated by phony solutions like Sen. Patrick’s and the accolades he gets for it from people who need to think it through more completely. I’ve seen this bill described as a “good first step”, but I have to ask, a step towards what? What’s the second step, and what’s the ultimate goal? In the meantime, what are we going to do to limit the influence of bad actors like Texans for Lawsuit Reform, strip clubs, and George Fleming and their money on the judicial selection process? I’m certainly willing to accept that our process of partisan judicial elections is deeply flawed, but if your solution doesn’t address the points I’ve raised I’m just not going to take it seriously.