Monday’s appointment by Texas House Speaker Joe Straus of a Dallas Democrat to the Texas Ethics Commission is another piece of evidence that Straus intends to continue using the TEC as a weapon in his war against the conservative grassroots.
Straus (R–San Antonio) is appointing Steve Wolens to the Texas Ethics Commission, to fill the Democratic Party spot being vacated by former commissioner Paul Hobby. Wolens served as a Democratic member of the Texas House of Representatives for 24 years, from 1981 to 2005. In the latter part of his legislative career, Wolens served as Democrat Speaker Pete Laney’s chairman of the powerful House State Affairs Committee. Wolens’ wife is former Dallas mayor Laura Miller. The couple remain active in Dallas County politics.
For many years, he was a law partner with the late Fred Baron, a democratic mega-donor. (Baron is infamous for allegedly paying hush money to Sen. John Edwards’ mistress after helping bankroll the senator’s 2004 presidential campaign.)
Wolens had a liberal voting record as a member of the Texas House. Consistently opposed to abortion restrictions, Wolen’s fought conservative groups on policies such as informed consent and judicial bypass reforms, forcing pro-life advocates to water-down their legislative priorities in order to pass bills out of his committee. Wolens also consistently voted in favor of labor unions and supported policies favorable to illegal aliens.
Directly relevant to his appointment to the TEC, Wolens is remembered for having authored and passed HB 1606 during the 78th legislative session. That bill was critical to the weaponization of the Ethics Commission. When it passed out of his committee, Wolen’s bill was supported by far-left groups like Common Cause, Public Citizen, and Texans for Public Justice, and it was directly opposed by the Republican Party of Texas.
His bill created the preliminary review hearing process that has been abused by the TEC to allow it to conduct 99% of its proceedings in secret. It gave the agency the power to subpoena records from those they are targeting. That power has been abused by the commission, leading one federal judge to call one set of TEC subpoenas “absurd.” The bill applied the commission’s regulations to internet websites and increased the penalties for late filing of reports. Wolens also would have imposed an additional annual fee on Texans who file with the commission, but his fee was stripped during the amendment process.
Despite increasing the TEC’s power over citizens, Wolen’s bill would have actually eased restrictions on legislators. Wolen would have removed criminal penalties for legislators who author and vote for bills that benefit their personal businesses. (That provision too was taken out by his colleagues in the legislature through the amendment process.)
Worse though, Wolens’ bill decreased the burden of proof in TEC hearings from clear and convincing evidence to merely a preponderance of the evidence. That was a particularly insidious change because it forces respondents to mount a defense in violation of their constitutional right against self-incrimination. The preponderance of the evidence standard, used in civil cases between private litigants, essentially asks the fact-finder to determine whether the plaintiff’s claims are more likely true than not. Under that standard, if a person invokes their right to silence, they might as well concede that their accuser is correct because the fact-finder will only be able to consider the accuser’s evidence in reaching a determination.
As an attorney, Wolens would have known about these issues relating to burdens of proof when he drafted HB 1606. It can only be concluded that he decided purposefully to put Texans who are accused before the TEC at a disadvantage.
Wolens joins former legislators Wilhelmina Delco, Tom Ramsey, and Chase Untermeyer on the Ethics Commission. Wolens served with Delco from 1981 to 1995 and with Ramsey from 1993 to 2003. Untermeyer served during the two sessions prior to Wolens’ election to the House.
Since its creation by Democratic Gov. Ann Richards in 1991, the TEC has often been composed of former legislators and others from the Austin political establishment. Straus’ appointment of Wolens makes clear that he intends for the agency to continue to be used as a weapon against the conservative grassroots. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said he wants a “new direction” for the TEC.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have an opportunity to appoint real reformers who can stop commissioners like Wolens from abusing the powers of the TEC.