A state senate committee was highly critical of the Texas Ethics Commission during the course of a five-hour hearing this week. One lawmaker called the agency “arrogant” while citizens invited to testify spoke against an agency that is more interested in enforcing its arcane rules than helping citizens engage in the political process.

The full hearing video is available on the Texas Senate website.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R–Granbury) was particularly bold, telling TEC Chairman Chase Untermeyer that he believed commissioners had adopted an “arrogant” and “haughty” attitude toward lawmakers and Texans.

Birdwell compared the TEC to another universally unpopular bureaucracy, the federal Transportation Security Administration.

“We’re turning political discourse into what the TSA is turning air travel into,” said Birdwell. “You’re absolutely necessary, just like the TSA is, but we’re making it pretty damn unpleasant.”

Benjamin Barr, an attorney with the Pillar of Law Institute, defended the rights of Texans to speak freely without burdensome disclosure requirements. Barr was particularly dismissive of TEC arguments that Texas needs to reduce the amount of money spent on elections, calling the argument “laughable on its face” given how little Americans spend relative to other items.

“Americans spend more money on Taco Bell in a year, $6 billion, potato chips, $6 billion, than they spent on the midterm elections in 2014 – $3.67 billion,” commented Barr.

In addition to Barr’s testimony, attorneys for Empower Texans recounted the lack of due process their clients have experienced at the TEC. Even the TEC’s proponents conceded a desperate need for reform, with one witness confessing that the commission’s current process “isn’t in the service of truth-finding.”

Another Austin attorney who deals with state ethics issues, Trey Blocker, told senators that the agency seems to have shifted its focus from helping citizens to enforcing its rules. Blocker, who is paid by many lawmakers to assist them in the filing of their ethics reports, encouraged the Texas Senate – and the agency – to refocus the TEC’s efforts, even going as far as to tell lawmakers “put him out of business.”

Even TEC proponents conceded lawmakers might consider eliminating the agency’s closed-door hearings and instead have the agency conduct its proceedings at the State Office of Administrative Hearings in front of an independent administrative law judge.

The day after the hearing Gov. Greg Abbott appointed two new members to the TEC – attorneys Chad Craycraft and Katie Kennedy. Grassroots groups are cautiously optimistic that the pair will pursue reform at the agency.

Abbott has asked legislators to pursue “genuine ethics reform” and called House efforts to obstruct his efforts last session “reprehensible” and “shameful.”

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.