Does every Texas county need its own Texas Ethics Commission in its backyard?

Senate Bill 710, authored by State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R–Conroe) would authorize every county in Texas to create a “county ethics commission.” These commissions would have the authority to implement an “ethics code” governing not only the affairs of local elected officials but also any other citizen who might violate the code. The commissions would have jurisdiction over any citizen in the county and the ability to receive complaints, hold secret proceedings, and impose fines of up to $4,000 per violation of the local ethics code.

A companion, House Bill 4161, is authored by State Rep. Mayes Middleton (R–Wallisville). The bills would modify Chapter 161 of the Texas Local Government Code, which currently empowers only El Paso County to appoint a county ethics commission. Under the new law, every county in Texas would be allowed to create a “county ethics commission.”

Aside from authorizing all 254 counties to implement a “county ethics commission,” SB 710 and HB 4161 would not make any alterations to the existing statute. That’s a problem.

The existing county ethics commission statute is modeled after Texas Government Code Chapter 571, which bestows unconstitutional investigatory powers on the Texas Ethics Commission. In recent years, the TEC has drawn criticism from conservative grassroots organizations for targeting citizen activists while failing to police elected officials.

Under the new law, each county ethics commission would be composed of 10 members. Five members would be appointed by “the county judge or a county commissioner” while the other five members would be appointed by the commissioners court from lists nominated by “the county civil service commission, a bar association in the county, the sheriff’s civil service commission, a dispute resolution center in the county affiliated with a council of governments, and a human resources management association in the county.”

This provision means that nongovernmental entities, like the local bar association, would have the authority to nominate members of the commission to effectively create local ethics laws that could be imposed in secret on their neighbors.

A bill analysis for SB 710 says that its aim is to empower counties to impose “effective penalties against those who violate ethical standards.” But the bill would do more than empower counties to police themselves; it would create a secret system of regulation and punishment applicable not only to elected officials but also candidates for local office, county employees, lobbyists, vendors and possibly any citizen who interacts with county government. By mirroring the TEC’s problematic enabling statute, the new law risks imposing draconian punishments and procedures on Texans who find themselves in local officials’ crosshairs.

SB 710 was voted out of the Senate State Affairs committee 9-0 and is currently on the intent calendar in the Texas Senate. It could be passed in the Senate as early as Monday, April 8.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.