Saturday, August 16, 2008

"If you are paying a fine with someone else's money, there is no personal accountability."

Panel wants fined to pay fines

Ethics group aims to halt tactic of lawmakers breaking rules, then having donors pick up bill.

August 16, 2008

By Laylan Copelin
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

When Texas politicians break the rules on campaign finance, they get fined. Then they get their political donors to pay the fines.

On Friday, members of the Texas Ethics Commission said it's time the Legislature changed that practice so that officeholders and candidates pay the fines themselves.

"If you are paying a fine with someone else's money, there is no personal accountability," said Ross Fischer, an ethics commissioner in charge of drafting recommendations to the Legislature. "When I talk to the public, that offends them more than anything."

The idea was included Friday in a draft copy of recommendations, which also included a suggestion that lawmakers decide how to address bloggers paid by or affiliated with campaigns.

The public is invited to comment on the recommendations, which will be finalized at the commission's December meeting, before the Legislature convenes in January.

Raymond "Tripp" Davenport III, a commission member and former chairman, first suggested that candidates and officeholders pay their own fines.

"It should be punitive in nature, and it's not," Davenport said of the fines. "I want to create a disincentive to breaking the rules."

Most fines against candidates or officeholders are relatively small — a few hundred or a couple thousand dollars, depending on the offense.

But the commission in recent months has begun levying larger fines, specifically in cases involving more money.

This summer, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, paid a $17,300 fine for improperly reimbursing himself with campaign money.

Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, last year was hit for $8,500 for failing to disclose the details of political spending on his credit card.

And former Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, in February received a $10,000 fine, which he is appealing, for illegally buying Austin real estate with campaign dollars.

Lawmakers, however, might be reluctant to change rules that affect them personally.

"It's a steep hill," said Austin Democratic Rep. Mark Strama, who has seen some of his efforts at campaign finance reform end at the Capitol.

"It's going to pass when the public forces the Legislature to do it," Strama said, "which I hope they do."

Of the state's top three leaders, only Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst embraced the idea Friday.

"If someone knowingly or intentionally does something wrong, they ought to pay their fine using personal funds, not campaign funds," he said. "But this is an issue that deserves full debate in the legislative session."

Speaker Tom Craddick, responding through a spokeswoman, said he would leave the issue to the Legislature to decide.

Robert Black, press secretary for Gov. Rick Perry, said, "He's perfectly fine if the Legislature wants to have that debate. He's going to do everything to see that he doesn't get fined in the first place."

Regulating bloggers might be just as difficult.

The issue is whether blogs paid by or affiliated with campaigns should be considered political advertising and labeled and regulated as such.

The commission's draft recommendation offers two different approaches: exempting bloggers altogether or using the Federal Election Commission's rules as a model.

"We're not trying to keep an individual from expressing themselves," Fischer said.

Vince Leibowitz is a blogger and chairman of the Texas Progressive Alliance, a group of 50 of the state's more prominent bloggers.

He said bloggers should not be subject to political advertising regulations. The only exception, he said, are blogs clearly operated by campaigns on campaign Web sites or the blogs of political action committees.

Instead, Leibowitz said the Legislature should put bloggers on equal footing with traditional news media.; 445-3617

© 2008 Austin

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