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Texas Ethics Bill Could Allow Appointees to Bar Prosecutions

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page A06

AUSTIN -- A key Republican legislator has introduced a bill that would give a Texas agency authority to stop prosecution of election law violations, drawing comparisons to a recent attempt in Washington to rewrite ethics rules to keep House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in power if he is ever indicted.

The move by GOP leaders to protect DeLay (R-Tex.) was quashed late last year when even some Republicans in Congress objected. In Texas, critics are calling the bill there a similar bold attempt to protect Republican lawmakers who might get caught in a criminal investigation into illegal campaign fundraising. The bill has yet to get a public hearing, but already, opponents have lined up to fight it.

Republican Rep. Mary Denny's bill could make it more difficult for Texas prosecutors to probe ethics violations. (Deb Cannon -- AP)

The bill was filed by state Rep. Mary Denny, the chairwoman of the House elections committee. It would require the Texas Ethics Commission, an eight-member panel appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, to create a special office to investigate criminal violations of the state election code. Prosecutors would have to notify the office of any alleged violations, and the office would have 45 days to evaluate the information. If the office determined an offense had not been committed, the prosecutor would be prohibited from pursuing charges relating to the alleged violation.

Denny agreed that her bill, as proposed, would hinder prosecutors in doing their jobs. Faced with a firestorm of criticism, she said Thursday she was working on changing her proposal to do what she said she intended: to make it easier for the ethics commission to investigate complaints about election law violations at the county, city or school district level. She said that prosecutors usually do not investigate such local complaints until after an election to avoid being accused of partisanship.

"By then, the damage is done," she said. "My intention was only to allow local candidates to file complaints with the ethics commission and to allow the commission to go in and look [at them]. The ethics commission could assess a fine and a record could be built, and hopefully there would be better compliance and a better following of the rules."

Critics say that Denny's bill could result in the hampering of a continuing criminal investigation into campaign finance violations allegedly committed during the 2002 election by a political action committee called Texans for a Republican Majority, whose directors are close associates of DeLay. TRMPAC, as the committee is known, is credited with raising millions of dollars that funded the Republican takeover of the Texas legislature.

Last fall, three DeLay associates who ran TRMPAC or raised money for the committee and eight corporations were indicted by a Travis County grand jury on charges of illegal fundraising. Charges against three of the corporations were subsequently dropped. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is continuing the investigation, which political observers speculate could lead to DeLay or to Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick (R).

In Washington, the House ethics committee admonished DeLay three times last fall for unethical conduct, but the panel has been reined in recently. Earlier this month, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) removed the chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), and two other members. On Wednesday, the new chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), announced he was removing two staff members who worked on the investigations that led to the rebukes of DeLay. Hastings's office said he would replace John Vargo, the staff director and chief counsel, and Paul Lewis, who was Hefley's counsel and the committee spokesman.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called the staff firings "one more step in the elimination of consideration of ethical violations in the House of Representatives." Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21, said that Republicans have "created the clear public perception that the ethics enforcement process is being shut down in the House."

In Texas, watchdog groups and others said Republicans also appear to be using their power to protect GOP leaders.

Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that tracks the influence of money in statewide politics, dubbed Denny's bill the "Politician Protection Act" and the "get-out-of-jail-free card for politicians."

The effect of her original proposal "would be absolutely to limit prosecutions by putting extra steps in front of a prosecutor and putting the ability to veto a prosecution" with the Texas Ethics Commission, said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. "Prosecutors and local juries should judge politicians, not bureaucrats appointed by the governor and the legislature."

Staff writer Mike Allen in Washington contributed to this report.

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