Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Joan Huffman personifies the lack of ethics in the Texas Lege

She never deserved this job in the first place, but that's a long story from the 2008 archives I don't want to dig into.  Suffice it to say that she's who replaced Kyle Janek in SD-17, and we're stuck with her now.  Maybe Greg Abbott will back up his tough talk with some action against one of his own.  Then again, probably not.

How much should state Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, be required to disclose about her husband's 34 businesses, which include an array of local bars that are regulated by the state?

It's a question currently before the Texas Legislature that surfaced last session and helped derail Gov. Greg Abbott's reform agenda on ethics, which he called "the most important commodity we have as elected officials."

When Abbott made ethics reform a top priority a year ago, spousal disclosure wasn't front and center in a package of provisions that he designated as "emergency" items.

But it is on his radar screen now after an eleventh-hour maneuver by Huffman in which she inserted a clause into an unrelated ethics measure that answered the question about disclosure and her husband's businesses in a word: Nothing.

How the matter plays out could be a harbinger of progress in Texas, which is not known for the strength of its ethics laws -- hence Abbott's focus.

Huffman used to be my state senator before they redistricted me back into SD-13, where Rodney Ellis is rumored to be one of the guys who wants El Franco Lee's seat on Commissioners Court.  She's just as lousy as the article suggests, perhaps more so.

Abbott was forced to veto part of his own ethics agenda after Huffman's ploy would have enabled lawmakers to forgo disclosure of spousal holdings as long as they had no "actual control" over them. The governor said he wanted no part of "weakening our ethics laws," which now require lawmakers and officials to disclose property and financial interests that are considered "community property" in Texas, meaning they were acquired after two people are married.

Abbott said shortly after the session ended that he would ask the Legislature in 2017 to revisit his proposed reforms. But some watchdog groups questioned whether he was truly committed to the cause or merely interested in following through with an issue he used during his 2014 campaign.

Craig McDonald, director of the liberal-leaning nonprofit group Texans for Public Justice, credited Abbott for declaring ethics reform an "emergency" item so the Legislature could take quick action. But McDonald said Abbott failed to speak out during the session when lawmakers dragged their feet.

Abbott is loyal to a fault and expects the same in return, but it's hard to see (without looking at his campaign finance reports, that is) why he's letting Huffman and her spouse walk around exposed as shills like this.  Abbott is also well-attuned to any political threat; maybe this isn't one that's big enough to him yet.

You can sure smell Huffman's BS, though.

Huffman, in a recent interview, said that despite the governor's vetoes, she believes the issue related to spousal disclosure remains unresolved and promised a thorough review this year of that topic and other state ethics laws in her role as chairwoman of the State Affairs Committee.

The businesses owned by her husband, Keith Lawyer, may be "community property" in their marriage, but she said she believes the law requires disclosure of only those that she has "actual control" over.

"I could not go up to his office and say, 'I want to sell Luke's Ice House,' " she said, referring to a popular bar her husband owns and operates. "I couldn't even walk in the door and say, 'I want y'all to mop the floor.' This should not be about me. It's really about making the law clearer for the many people in the state who have to file these statements."

But her critics said the governor's vetoes ended the debate. Huffman, they maintain, should be held accountable for the failure of ethics reform last year. They said it is, in fact, all about her misinterpreting state law so she didn't have to disclose her husband's vast business holdings.

One of those critics, Carol Wheeler, a state Democratic Party official from Katy, filed a complaint against Huffman before the state Ethics Commission, asserting that she appeared to violate state law for several years by failing to disclose "significant business interests of herself and her husband, Keith Lawyer."

Disclosure of my own: I worked with Carol Wheeler in SD-17 intra-party politics for a few years in 2009, '10, and '11.  She has no agenda other than good government.

If you want a refresher on state legislators' ethical dilemmas and the Sharpstown scandal of the '70's, which brought down dozens of politicos, including a governor and a lieutenant governor, then click over and pick up where I left off above.

Huffman and Lawyer were married in 1997. Of the dozens of businesses that Lawyer has financial interests in, according to state business records, only five were created before their marriage, Wheeler's ethics complaint states. Huffman, a former state district court judge in Harris County, was first elected to the Senate in 2008.

Lawyer owns several companies that operate 17 bars in Texas, including Luke's Ice House, with locations in Houston, Beaumont and Nederland, regulated by the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

In her annual ethics statement required by state law, Huffman listed seven items involving her husband's finances in 2008. After Abbott's veto and Wheeler's ethics complaint, her 2014 statement has ballooned, listing her husband's extensive business holdings for the first time. She said recently that the filing had nothing to do with the governor's vetoes or the ethics complaint; she merely was complying with the Ethics Commission rule change.

 Here's where it takes a shady turn.

Huffman's maneuver on spousal ethics came prior to this filing. She made her move during the closing weeks of the 2015 legislative session, when an unrelated ethics bill sponsored by a fellow Houston Republican, state Rep. Sarah Davis, landed in her committee. Its purpose was simple and noncontroversial, making it easier for public officials to electronically file their personal financial statements.

Huffman, the Senate's ethics gatekeeper, added the provision that she described as clarifying what public officials must disclose on their ethics statements about the finances of their spouses. The 2014 rule by the Ethics Commission, she explained, was too broad and went beyond the "actual control" standard in the 1973 law, which she wanted to go back to.

This new version of Davis' bill then passed the Senate. The House agreed with the Senate's changes, and sent the bill to the governor.

A second ethics bill introduced by Davis ended up in Huffman's committee. She again attached her language on spousal disclosure just to make sure it was adopted, in case something happened to the first. Also attached was one of Abbott's ethics provisions, requiring legislators, statewide elected officials and gubernatorial appointees to disclose contracts or any other arrangement in which they were paid by a public agency. This bill, too, passed both chambers and was sent to Abbott's desk.

The Ethics Commission wasn't pleased. The 2014 rule was not a change in law, but a clarification that was consistent with the 1973 state law and how the agency had enforced that statute, said Ian Steusloff, general counsel of the Ethics Commission.

Abbott wasted little time and vetoed both of Davis' bills, citing the provisions inserted by Huffman.

"At the beginning of this legislative session, I called for meaningful ethics reform," Abbott said in a statement. "This legislation does not accomplish that goal. Provisions in this bill would reduce Texans' trust in their elected officials, and I will not be a part of weakening our ethics laws."

Davis, in an interview, said she accepted Huffman's amendments to her two ethics bills because she was trying to get some of Abbott's reform agenda signed into law. But after the outcry, she asked Abbott to veto her own bills.

If Huffman gets appointed to work on ethics again by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the coming session, then we'll know Abbott didn't really mean what he said about cleaning up Rick Perry's messes.

We'll also know that nothing really ever changes with Republicans in Austin.  I thought we knew these things before, but then again, these are Texas conservatives we're talking about.  None so stupid and mean as them anywhere, not even in Oregon at the moment.

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