Currently, any opinion or penalty assessed by the Ethics Commission can be appealed to a court wherein the person dissatisfied with the Ethics Commission ruling may enjoy a trial de novo. In plain English this means the court can try the entire matter all over again without regard to the findings of the Ethics Commission. Almost every other state agency has a different standard. The standard is “substantial evidence.” Under this rule, the person appealing the ruling of a state agency must show there was no substantial evidence upon which the agency could have based their ruling.
In the recent session of the Legislature, one reform effort was contained in a bill vetoed by Governor Perry. Another free-standing effort at reform changing the de novo appeal to a substantial evidence rule was killed by Tea Party member, Van Taylor of Plano, before it ever got to the Governor.
The recalcitrance of the Governor and fellow travelers to reform our ethics watchdog in Texas allows some very stupid decisions to remain untouched. One of the most appalling decisions was made by a former panel of the Ethics Commission in which an ex-member of the Legislature was alleged to have accepted unauthorized payments. The ethics complaint was thrown out because the alleged unauthorized payments were only in the form of a check and not cash.
More recently, Republican Judge Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the state's highest criminal court--whose conduct very likely allowed a possibly innocent man to go to his death because she refused to allow a clerk to remain on the job to receive a last-minute appeal--had her $100,000 fine from the Ethics Commission reduced to only $25,000 by another sitting district judge.
Judge Nathan Hecht, who sits on our Supreme Court, and who as a judge should be as pure as Caesar’s wife, has kept a substantial fine for his misdeeds tied up in court. Judge Hecht, who was sited for having unlawfully participated in a partisan election, was the beneficiary of a large law firm's services. The firm which regularly has cases before his court wrote off most of a $168,000 legal bill. A gift of services should be the same as a gift of money or other valuable things. In all probability, our fine Republican Judge Hecht will manage to escape payment of the fine levied by the Ethics Commission because his case is being reviewed by a district judge whose future opinions will be reviewed by Judge Hecht and other members of the Supreme Court.
Texans should remember at election time and hold our elected officials to a higher standard of ethical conduct. We need a better system of enforcing ethics in our state.