Chavez gunning for El Paso County ethics bill; other delegation members stand by it
by Ben Wright
Posted on April 3, 2009
A fight broke out among El Paso's House delegation Thursday evening over the county's proposed ethics bill that is working its way though the Texas Legislature.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, was filed on behalf of the county in March but is encountering stiff opposition from state Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, who called it “sloppy,” criticized the lack of public input and said it may be unconstitutional.
"Various stakeholders have contacted my office regarding the lack of transparency in the process…and that’s contrary to an ethical bill,” Chavez said.
Carried by Marquez in the house and Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, in the Senate, the legislation would give El Paso County the ability to create an ethics commission with the power to subpoena and impose fines on state officials and employees who violate the county’s ethics code.
While the county has an ethics code, it has no “teeth” to enforce it, argues County Attorney Jose Rodriguez. But Chavez claims the proposed legislation might violate the separation of powers principle and could lead to “witch hunts” in the county.
“We’re looking at the issue of whether or not it is constitutional," Chavez said. "I guarantee you, every lawyer in El Paso will say it is not, just like the lawyers here in Austin are telling me.
“When you have a few people in closed door meetings drafting legislation, when there is not enough community input, when you don’t have the stakeholders or their unions present and you come up with a bill, you better believe I have an issue.”
But El Paso County Commissioner Veronica Escobar, who has been lobbying with Rodriquez for the bill in Austin, dismissed Chavez’s “innumerable” concerns, saying she has had plenty of time to raise them and simply doesn't want the bill to pass.
Indeed, Chavez was first asked to carry the bill for the county, Escobar said.
“Everyone we’ve talked to has had specific concerns (about the bill) because they want the bill to pass…the bottom line is she doesn’t want it passed,” Escobar said.
This morning, Marquez said she was disappointed because Chavez had not personally approached her or her office with concerns.
“I think it is very unfortunate that a member of my delegation has not come to me with specific concerns to make this bill better. It is not just the author’s responsibility to make something great,” said Marquez, adding that she was moving forward on the bill with or without Chavez’s support.
“This is a bill for the people of El Paso. I will move forward on good legislation that will benefit the people of El Paso,” Marquez said.
According to Escobar, the bill could have been passed out the House County Affairs Committee last week, but was pulled from Monday’s agenda. Marquez sits on that committee.
Subsequently, it became clear that state Rep. Joe Pickett had reservations about the bill in its original form, as well. In response, Escobar, Rodriguez, and fellow County Commissioner Anna Perez went to Austin to lobby hard for the legislation.
Escobar expressed frustration at having to scramble to keep the bill from dying in committee.
“I also have expectations of our state legislators, that when Commissioners Court votes unanimously to support something that they will at the very least contact us if they have questions," Escobar said. "I have never gotten a call, never had an appearance from a staff member from the delegation in front of us at Commissioners Court to raise concerns.
"We went to Austin because we were alarmed that it was pulled from the County Affairs agenda. We went to them.”
Though apparently frustrating, their last minute efforts seemed to have paid off, with Marquez and Escobar claiming the bill now has the Pickett's support and has been tweaked to address concerns raised by El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles and District Attorney Jaime Esparza.
“We’re including Sheriff Wiles’ language regarding his right to refusal and removing the criminal language and leaving it completely civil,” Marquez said.
The revised version of the bill being tidied up this morning by the Texas Legislative Council differs from the original in two major ways.
First, by adopting Wiles’ language, it essentially gives the sheriff the first crack of the whip when it comes to clamping down on unethical behavior within the his department.
“If he needs to discipline his folks, he has the right to do that before the Ethics Commission,” Escobar said regarding the new language.
Second, the proposed County Ethics Commission would now be limited to doling out civil penalties, not criminal penalties. This was the concern shared by Pickett and Esparza.
The commission, as now proposed, could only subpoena witnesses and impose fines. Any prospect of jail-time for violations of state law would be left to law enforcement.
“I have spoken to Pickett briefly. I think we have resolved his issues," Marquez said.
Pickett and Esparza’s concern, she said, "was that whatever belongs in the criminal arena gets stripped from the bill and that if there is a criminal issue it goes to law enforcement.”
With changes made and fears allayed, Marquez feels confident about the bill passing out of committee on Monday
“Right now we have language in for a committee substitute that will be presented on Monday,” Marquez said. In order to pass to the House floor, a bill must be voted out of committee. “I have talked to all my committee members and they are all supporting it,” Marquez said.
That was the situation at 5 p.m. yesterday as Marquez was wrapping up for the day. By dusk, Rodriguez, Perez and Escobar were flying back to El Paso.
However, no sooner than their plane had landed, Escobar was receiving reports that Chavez was working behind the scenes to flip committee votes in order to hold up the bill.
“She (Marquez) had worked very hard to get the votes," Escobar said. "If it doesn’t pass on Monday that means someone has been working very hard to undo that consensus. If you want to vote against it, let it go to the floor and vote against it. Don’t go through the back door.”
Escobar also dismissed Chavez’s concerns over the constitutionality of the bill as necessarily vague.
Thursday afternoon, Rodriquez and Chavez had a meeting to discuss the issue. Rodriguez asked Chavez to show specifically where in the bill's constitutional issues might be. According to Escobar, Chavez was unable to do so.
“It really comes down to one person," Escobar said. "We have been working very hard, from the sheriff to the DA to Rep. Pickett. … Most people who want a remedy will show you how to get there.
Chavez said she is looking for a remedy, but questioned the need for speed when it came to getting the bill out of committee.
“I’ve had to pull my staff attorney off the other work that he’s doing to look at the bill because of issues that have been brought to me by various stakeholders,” Chavez said. “The last major Texas ethics bill we passed was in 2003 and members debated and discussed 66 amendments. There is no rush on this bill.”
Chavez was undaunted by Marquez moving ahead with the bill despite her objections.
“They can move forward all they want,” Chavez said. “The county may offer everything they want, but it is the Texas Legislature who decides what the final bill looks like. They can pass whatever they want (out of committee) and I can do an entire floor substitute of their bill on the floor. That’s Texas checks and balances.”
“Everyone recognizes the need for something like this but we shouldn’t be sloppy about this. This is not Veronica’s playground, this is very serious business,” Chavez said.
When asked, Escobar said she was unsure what Chavez meant by that comment.
“This is not a game, this is not about personality, this is not about individuals,” responded Escobar.
As if addressing Chavez herself, Escobar continued, “When you have an issue with the bill, be transparent and open about it it. That’s the chronic problem in this community: The lack of transparency. And when you don’t have transparency, you have people making deals behind the scenes. That’s not good for a community.”
Shapleigh’s version of the ethics bill has already passed through the Senate’s committee process without Marquez’s changes and been recommended for the local and uncontested calendar.
“If there is any county in America that desperately needs an ethics commission, it’s El Paso,” Shapleigh said, dismissing Chavez’s concerns over the bills constitutionality:
“The bill has been carefully crafted by a number of very capable attorneys and others who have looked at (ethics) commissions around the county. There are due process safeguards. It has a narrow scope, and it is directed at the bribery allegations that have so plagued the county.
"I believe the bill mirrors what other cities have done and is a very important tool that our community should adopt this session.”
Shapleigh said he thought the changes made by Marquez and the county have improved the bill and demanded an open debate.
“If there are any issues, then put them on the table in the light of day and we’ll deal with them. But to take shots at the bill from behind closed doors is not a fair tactic,” Shapleigh said.
“Clearly what is happening in Juarez, what is happening in the region with public corruption, what is happening in the Barraza case, puts front and center the issue of ethics in government. We have a choice to deal with it ourselves or have the FBI do it,” Shapleigh said.
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