I can still see Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan sitting at a conference table with the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Ethics. It was 1991. Ann Richards was governor and Barbara Jordan was her ethics adviser. They were gently trying to convince the senators that they needed to pass a bill to give more public scrutiny over gifts or cash contributions that they received while holding office or running for office.
It was a low-key meeting. Sunshine streamed into the richly wood adorned senate chambers where handsomely painted portraits of past Texas state senators stared at one another.
Most of the senators sitting around the conference table were wearing dark gray suits. Governor Richards and Ms. Jordan were wearing dark somber clothing appropriate for the occasion.
No one asked, “Do these gifts and special favors make me look ugly?”
Instead, a senator shifted in his leather chair uncomfortably. He said that he did not want his neighbors in his home district to know how what or how much he was receiving in gifts– it would embarrass his wife and family, he claimed. His constituents would not understand why these gifts and financial contributions were necessary.
Governor Richards backed by Ms. Jordan said that the public had a right to know what gifts and cash contributions that the legislators were receiving and from whom, because it had elected them. The public’s faith in them as elected officials would be damaged if they did not agree to have more public scrutiny over the gifts that they received. This was the price they paid for holding public office, Richards said.
Later that session, an ethics law was passed, and the Texas Ethics Commission was created to give more public oversight over gifts and cash donations that elected officials and public employees received. It replaced the State Ethics Advisory Commission.
One immediate effect was that all of us who worked for the legislature in the next session had to attend an ethics training presentation. I wondered why I had to attend the training. I couldn’t imagine anyone offering me, a low-level legislative employee, a gift or cash to influence legislation. As I watched the presentation, I wondered if the legislators themselves also had to attend the same class. I thought that perhaps they might excuse themselves, given the fact that they had passed the ethics law.
I did see some impact from the ethics law. In the first session under Governor Richards, parties and gift baskets from lobbyists flowed freely as “good will gestures” to the legislature and their staffs. But after the passage of ethics legislation there were fewer parties. Also, I saw fewer gift baskets being delivered on the last day of the session in contrast to Governor Richard’s first session.
Other than this, the Texas Ethics Commission and ethics laws appear to have had little effect on Texas legislators. If the commission really had been concerned with ethics, it would have gone after Tom Delay, the former Texas State Representative, immediately after allegations surfaced that he had violated state campaign laws instead of waiting for the federal House Ethics Committee to formally sanction him. Are national politicians from Texas exempt from Texas state ethics laws?
Just a week after Ann Richards’ death, The Texas Ethics Commission announced that legislators did not have to specify the amounts of gifts or cash donations that they received. They could just call it cash. A few days later, after a large uproar, the Commission decided that perhaps it should reconsider its decision.
Perhaps the Texas Ethics Commission needs to find that ethics training presentation and watch it for itself before it issues any more opinions.