Hearing the call of conservative grassroots demanding reform, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is calling for a “new direction” at the Texas Ethics Commission. According to a statement released Wednesday, Patrick said it was his goal to “make sure the Commission operates with the kind of openness and transparency that inspires the confidence of the people of Texas.”
To that end, Patrick’s staff asked TEC commissioner Hugh C. Akin to resign so that he could appoint a reformer to the Commission. In the wake of two resignations, Akin is one of six long-time TEC commissioners remaining. If he does not resign and is not impeached, Akin’s term will continue until November 19, 2017.
However Akin has been defiant in the face of Patrick’s request. On Tuesday, the commissioner sent a letter to Patrick saying he was refusing to step down because he finds his work on the TEC “important, challenging, and rewarding.”
Over the past several years, Akin has joined the other TEC commissioners, who are split evenly amongst the Republican and Democratic parties, in waging war on the conservative grassroots. With Akin’s support, the commission has pushed new rules and legal theories designed to suppress the First Amendment rights of civic groups and churches.
Under Akin’s watch, the TEC has been caught lying to state and federal courts. Similarly, longtime TEC commissioner Tom Harrison, one of Akin’s allies on the commission, recently resigned from the commission in light of allegations he had been providing benefits to legislators and legislative staff while working as a lobbyist in violation of state law. Harrison’s conduct is the subject of a criminal complaint.
While Akin can resist the inevitable reforms the TEC must make in order to comply with the Constitution, he can’t stop them. Patrick’s declaration that there will be a new direction and transparency at the TEC can only be delayed, not prevented.
When it comes to transparency, the TEC is a failure. The overwhelming majority of commission meetings take place behind closed doors, with the public and lawmakers barred from attending.
Were they able to see what transpires in a closed door TEC hearing, Texans would be shocked and appalled. Having refused for 25 years to adopt rules to govern commission hearings, the TEC commissioners have no process for admitting evidence or evaluating objections. Their standard procedure is to call the accused as their only witness and then berate them with irrelevant and invasive questions in the hope of badgering them into a settlement.
Even the commissioners themselves have conceded their process is abusive. Former TEC Chairman Paul Hobby, who recently resigned from the Commission, explained it to the Texas Tribune in 2013.
“You ought to see these people who leave our meetings in tears, these sweet, simple people who missed a box, missed a deadline. They get a letter [from the Ethics Commission] and they can’t sleep at night, they hire a lawyer they can’t afford. There’s no moral sanction here, they’re not convicted felons. But these people swear, they promise, ‘I’ll never participate in the process again.’”
The TEC’s track record on collecting and maintaining campaign finance records is no better. A national study found the TEC’s services dead last in user satisfaction and transparency.
Leaders like Lt. Gov. Patrick are standing up and taking notice of the TEC’s rampant unconstitutional activities. It is time for real ethics reform that sets citizens free from speech regulators like the TEC and that puts a magnifying glass on the financial dealings of politicians.