Austin and Conroe, April 11 – JD Lambright, Montgomery County Attorney until he lost a brief battle with cancer and went into the arms of the Lord on March 9, 2019, spent the last several years of his life and career as an advocate for ethics and integrity in government, Free Speech, and citizens rights. One of his greatest achievements during his six years in office as County Attorney was drafting a Code of Ethics for Montgomery County. Sadly, the Code of Ethics lacked any enforceability, because Texas law currently only allows one county, El Paso, to adopt an enforceable ethics code.
Senate Bill 710, the JD Lambright Local Government Ethics Reform Act, is Lambright’s dream to give all counties in Texas the ability, but not the duty, to adopt an ethics code which would have enforceability through civil penalties. The Montgomery County Republican Party’s Executive Committee (composed of all of the Precinct Chairs) has endorsed the legislation, as have the Montgomery County Commissioners Court and the Travis County Commissioners Court.
Senate Bill 710 passed the Texas Senate on a 30 to 0 vote. This newspaper mistakenly reported the vote as 30 to 1, but Senator Bob Perry was absent from the Senate and didn’t vote on Monday, April 8, when the vote occurred.
Lambright’s dream legislation has now gone to the Texas House of Representatives where the House has referred the bill to the House Committee on County Affairs.
The Lambright Act has nothing whatsoever to do with regulating Free Speech. Otherwise, Lambright would not have championed the concept. Rather, it merely gives county governments the right to establish ethics codes with enforceability, if and only if the county so chooses.
As Senator Brandon Creighton, the author of Senate Bill 710, made clear, the legislation only applies to “county public servants,” pursuant to Section 161.101 of the Texas Local Government Code, whom the current statute, Section 161.002(8) defines as:
- a county officer or county employee;
- a person appointed by the commissioners court or a county officer to a position on one of the following, whether the position is compensated or not:
- an authority, board, bureau, commission, committee, council, department, district, division, or office of the county; or a multi-jurisdictional board;
- an attorney at law or notary public when participating in the performance of a governmental function;
- a candidate for nomination or election to an elected county office; or
- a person who is performing a governmental function under a claim of right although the person is not legally qualified or authorized to do so.
The legislation would only authorize ethics codes applicable to county public servants. They would not regulate any conduct of private individuals whatsoever.
One organization, based in north Texas, has expressed a concern that the ethics commissions would be “abusive” as that organization perceives the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC), the Texas state agency which regulates and enforces Texas campaign finance laws. The TEC, however, has jurisdiction over private individuals who engage in political advertising. The ethics commissions under the Lambright Act would not regulate private individuals.
The ethics commissions under the Lambright Act have nothing whatsoever to do with the regulation of any private activity. They would only have jurisdiction over county governments.
Many counties desperately need ethics code in order to combat epidemics of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and gifts and inappropriate “favors” for county officials, among other ethics challenges.
Ethical people stand for ethics in government, which should represent all of us as we strive to be, ethical.
Texans have a wonderful opportunity to give counties a tool for creation of enforceable ethics codes which only El Paso County has. The ethics statute, Chapter 161 of the Texas Local Government Code, has worked remarkably well in El Paso County.
With Lambright’s dream, the other 253 counties in Texas will have the opportunity to implement ethics codes to regulate county elected officials and county government employees, should they so choose.